A Different Visit to Rio…in 1787

Rio de Janeiro — people from across the world have gathered to attend the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. Now it is the second largest city in Brazil. But 229 years ago, in 1787, it was the country’s capital, and a major port. Why is that year significant?

On August 6, 1787, the visitors who arrived in Rio could not have been more different from today’s Olympic athletes. In fact, they were prisoners…convicts in the “First Fleet” from Britain on their way to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay, Australia. Eleven 3-masted ships were the first in a program called “transportation” that continued until 1868, delivering about 165,000 convicts to Australia.

The fleet entered Rio’s harbor through a narrow entrance guarded by forts. Its commander, Governor Arthur Phillip, bought fresh provisions for his ships, and took aboard seeds that would grow in Australia: coffee, cotton, indigo (the tropical plant produced a much desired blue dye). After a month in Rio, the fleet continued on its way eventually reaching its destination on January 20, 1788.



Find out more about the voyage of the First Fleet—in particular the ship Lady Penrhyn—in my book 10 Ships That Rocked the World (Annick Press, 2015). It is part of the series, World of Tens.



A colleague, Judith Silverthorne, has also written about the transportation of convicts in a YA novel, Convictions (Coteau, 2016). The story follows 14-year-old Jennie, sentenced to 7 years in Australia for stealing a sack of oats to help feed her starving family. Loaded with tension through dramatic action scenes, this well-researched book will give you an authentic taste of life aboard an 18th-century convict ship.



Hummers and Echinacea


Among the flowers that hummingbirds love, Echinacea is high on the list.


So I’m not sorry my patch of this pinkish, daisy-like blossom has spread a little out of control in the flowerbed. It is easy enough to pull the excess later, when the hummingbirds have begun their southward journey.

Meantime, throughout July, it has been rare to not see at least one bird mining the blooms for nectar. These female rufous have been shopping here for several weeks. They are at it all day long, and into the evening. Why go anywhere else when there is such a wealth of yummy food?



























When the flowers fade in the fall, I leave them to go to seed. They can be loosely tied in clumps to keep them upright so they’ll stay above the first snowfalls. Then it won’t be hummingbirds coming to dine, but chickadees and goldfinches who appreciate the banquet all winter. By spring, there will be nothing left of the seed heads, and they can be cut back to ground level, ready for next summer’s display.


Birding is a 10!

Birding as a hobby rates a 10, or more. It’s all positive! It’s fun, portable, requires little equipment, lets you enjoy exercise accompanied by bird song in some awe-inspiring habitat, gives you the ‘thrill of the hunt’ while knowing the creatures you are lucky enough to spot will carry on with their lives, undisturbed. The more time you spend out there, the better your identification skills will become. What’s not to love?

Collecting new species can be challenging, especially if you are trying to add to your Life List. That’s an ongoing goal for me: I’m up to 501 now, having recently seen the elusive great grey owl I’d been after for years. Have to travel farther to find new birds these days, though. Meantime, a bonus is getting a decent picture of a familiar bird that shows its distinctive markings.


This white-crowned sparrow posed along a country lane on Gabriola Island in May. The light highlights its distinctive field marks of bold white and black crown stripes, and shows the bright orange bill of this western population


It’s not always easy to get a pair of birds in one shot, like these American widgeon in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park. The posture of bill angled down, and drops falling from it show their feeding habit, picking plants off the surface of the marbled-looking pond.


This male hairy woodpecker was on the move up a tree, so tricky to get a clear photograph. His loud sharp voice alerts you to his presence, usually before you see him.

So, go birding! You’ll love it!

Komagata Maru Recalled…

Today in Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized for the role the Canadian government played 102 years ago in refusing entry into Canada to 376 passengers, all nonwhite British subjects, aboard the Komagata Maru. The incident revealed injustice and discrimination in Canadian immigration laws and led to eventual change, but not before the mid-1900s. In 2008, the province of BC made a formal apology, and Prime Minister Steven Harper apologized to the Sikh community at a local festival.


If you’d like to read an account of this event, check out Chapter 6 in my book, 10 Ships That Rocked the World:

On May 21, 1914, a steamship called the Komagata Maru dropped anchor not far offshore from the city of Vancouver, British Columbia. On board were 376 South Asians, many of whom were farmers, who had traveled from India, seeking jobs and a better life in Canada. Even though the countries they traveled between were both part of the British Empire, they were met with a wall of opposition: laws had been passed by the Canadian government to keep them from entering the country. “

Garden Visitors

With plants that will attract birds,  mulch in the soil to encourage worms, and water for drinks and baths, I always get a good selection of regulars returning each spring to my garden.

Everyone's favorite thrush

Everyone’s favorite thrush

Spotted towhee enjoying a splash

Spotted towhee enjoying a splash















It promises to be a dry summer in the BC Interior, so this ‘swimming pool’ might get a lot of use……already, song sparrows, chickadees, robins and towhees show up daily.

A pair of chickadees are nesting nearby

A pair of chickadees are nesting nearby









Pileated woodpeckers are frequent visitors

Pileated woodpeckers hunting for bugs



And here’s one more spectacular bird that comes around quite often looking for a meal in the surrounding shrubs and trees. Their loud call is unmistakable.




Fine Feathers


Ruffed grouse in hawthorn

Ruffed grouse in hawthorn

I’ve written about this ruffed grouse before, but now I’m able to get decent photos with a zoom lens. Directly outside my kitchen window, the grouse posed gracefully in a hawthorn tree. I think it was after the berries, or small buds. Even through the window (not yet cleaned for spring), its markings show up well. This bird, and a mate, have hung around all winter, usually coming to the garden in late afternoon.












Here’s a pine siskin. It’s a finch with yellow wing and tail markings that travels in large flocks. Earlier in the winter, it came to my feeder with common redpolls, another member of the finch family with rosy coloring on the head and breast. Right now, only the siskins remain. They are greedy, emptying the feeder each day by scattering seeds everywhere. I’m sure to have some sunflowers in the garden this summer.



The Gray Ghost

The Great Gray Owl stands near the top of every serious bird watcher’s most-wanted list.” That’s how Robert W. Nero, Manitoba ornithologist, began the Foreword of his book, The Great Gray Owl: phantom of the northern forest (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1980).

I may be more of a hobby birder than a “serious” one, but until yesterday, that owl was right at the top of my wanna-see list. We just completed a jigsaw puzzle of Robert Bateman’s painting, Ghost of the North. I think it was simply the right time to get my prize!


My interest in birding began in a small way when I lived in PEI, took firmer hold when I lived in Saskatchewan in the 80s and 90s, and has stayed strong ever since. Dr. Nero gave a presentation on his extensive Great Gray Owl studies at a Regina Natural History Society meeting. I was fascinated by his stories of capture that involved a fishing rod and lure (an artificial mouse) for banding to gather biological data. I even used such a scene in a short story once (still unpublished).

I bought Nero’s book (maybe his first of 9), and that’s when the owl went onto my own list. I never had an opportunity to see one when they emerged from the boreal forests into the southern prairies. Nor did I get lucky on subsequent birding trips to likely habitat. So when reports of Great Grays became more frequent around my Shuswap area home recently, the time was right.

Great Gray on the wing

Great Gray on the wing

Late afternoon is prime hunting time for owls which feed on small mammals such as mice. The large Great Gray will often perch low to the ground on a fence post at the edge of an open field, slowly turning its head, aiming its huge facial disk to capture tiny sounds. Super sensitive hearing is the key to success locating mice beneath the snow. This owl also seems to be a creature of habit, so will haunt a particular area repeatedly. And that’s what gives determined birders their chance. The Great Gray is #501 (and the 11th owl species) on my Life List.