The Deep Midwinter

It’s winter solstice. Here’s how the dictionary defines this shortest day of the year:

mid.win.ter  n.

1. the middle of winter

2. the period of the winter solstice, on or about December 22 in the Northern Hemisphere

The December solstice marks the ‘turning of the sun’, the signal for the days to slowly get longer. From this mid-winter day, the season begins to move toward its end.

The haunting poem\hymn, In the Bleak Midwinter, by Christina Rosetti, always comes to mind at this time.

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

I prefer to think of midwinter as ‘deep’ instead, because it isn’t all ‘bleak’, as in ‘cold and unfriendly with no pleasant features, no hope’. I found these bright and peaceful spots in my yard at this pivotal point in the winter. They seem to promise the hope for the New Year that we all long for!

Raspberry cane

Raspberry cane

Mountain ash berries waiting for waxwings

Mountain ash berries waiting for waxwings

Snow on cedar

Snow on cedar

Burning bush berries

Burning bush berries

Snow-capped Echinacea

Snow-capped Echinacea

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Help the Birds this Winter

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A recent showing of the award-winning Eco-Documentary, The Messenger in Salmon Arm drew attention to the plight of songbirds. Their numbers are declining sharply from habitat loss, climate change, light pollution, pesticides and cat predation. If you usually have small birds around your property, have you noticed the absence of the melodious ‘dawn chorus’ that used to wake you in spring at 4 AM? Maybe a song sparrow or a robin might show up to herald the new day….but a couple of chirps and whistles can no longer be called a chorus. Spring is far more quiet now because the birds aren’t there. A world without bird music is vastly diminished, in my opinion.

Don’t wait until spring to think of ways you can help these birds survive. While numerous smaller birds migrate to warmer climes during the winter, many stay put. Where I live in the Salmon Arm area, at least 25 species of songbirds have been recorded on the annual Christmas Bird Count. The seed, suet and water we provide winter birds active in daylight hours is their fuel to endure the colder overnight temperatures.

But my part of BC is bear country, and our communities are also home to nocturnal critters like raccoons—I saw their tracks in the fresh snow this morning, in fact. Bird feeders can attract these wild animals and bring them into close contact with people, causing problems. How to balance the need to feed birds with the safety issues—for both humans and animals? I’ve hung my feeder where it is easy to remove at dusk, and store inside overnight. Domestic cats are a serious threat (in all seasons) to songbirds as well, so I keep watch for any that may hang around my feeder. A small dish of water when temperatures are above freezing will help them too.

Chickadees like the one in the photo above will find your feeder quickly. A couple of them have trained my husband by calling for him every morning at breakfast… “Hey, get that feeder out here now!”

Since it appears that human activities are largely responsible for the songbird population decline, it’s the least we can do!

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Merry Christmas!

Artists’ conk

I just finished writing 10 Routes That Crossed the World, due to be published next April. So trails are on my mind…..

On a hike along Reinecker Creek trail (above Margaret Falls in Herald Provincial Park) recently, I found something of interest.

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This huge fungus is called a conk. It is one of over 1000 species of polypores (a group of fungi). Its presence on the tree trunk means there is probably a fair amount of decay inside the tree. Spores on the underside of this fungus will spread the infection to other trees through an open wound, or via insects or birds. For instance, a woodpecker might take the spores from this tree to another one.

Conks can vary in size; this is one of the largest I’ve seen. They can be different colors, but the large white under surface can be used by artists—hence the name ‘artists’ conk’. Scratching it, or rubbing will create a design that will remain once the conk has dried. Might be a neat place to write a story!

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.

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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.

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Hummers and Echinacea

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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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. “