An amazing thing happened in my garden this morning

DSCN0026I saw something quite remarkable in my garden this morning. Well, to be truthful I frequently encounter remarkable things in the garden, but this was special.

A cold morning. Peonies buds ready to burst, and not an ant to be seen. That in itself is unusual, at this time of year the buds are normally covered with them.

But there was a female hummingbird. She spent quite a long time hovering over the peonies, sipping what must be nectar off of the buds.

My new resolution: Never step into the garden without a camera.

First time at the Huron Fringe Birding Festival

Maianthemum stellatum, or Starry False Solomon's Seal. Very pretty.
Maianthemum stellatum, or Starry False Solomon’s Seal. Very pretty.

I just got home from the Huron Fringe Birding Festival. The “Fringe” part had me thinking it was some kind of arty alternative birdwatching event; however the “Huron Fringe” is actually a boardwalk trail along Lake Huron at MacGregor Point Provincial Park. I wasn’t disappointed though. Birders and naturalists are “alternative” by default, and arty… well, there WAS a lot of camera paraphernalia around. I’m certain the humans struggling under the weight of massive zoom lenses and tripods took some fantastic photos.

The festival is an 8-day extravaganza that celebrates a lot more than birding. Hundreds of people attend up to a dozen different events each day. Yesterday I joined a guided tour of The Ark Farm B&B and learned about the owner’s efforts to incorporate wildlife habitat into their property and farming methods. They are doing something right; Meadowlarks and Bobolinks, both threatened grassland species, happily nest there and were a pleasure to watch and hear.

Last night I attended the banquet, sat with some new friends, drank some wine, and listened to a talk on Loons by Doug Tozer of Bird Studies Canada, who is a wonderfully entertaining speaker. I also won a great little camera at the silent auction. Many thanks to Kerry for persuading me to up my bid. I accused him of ulterior motives (more funds for Friends of MacGregor Point Park!) but it was good advice nonetheless, and a good cause. I love my new camera.

Today I was lucky enough to participate in the “Bird and Botany” tour of Inverhuron Provincial Park. The leader was a young fellow by the name of Scott Taylor, who is doing postdoctoral work at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and grew up exploring Inverhuron. It was a day of birding, plant identification, and reptile/amphibian sightings. I learned a lot, found out what a small world it is, had some laughs, and met some great people. I hope I run into them again next year, because I’m definitely going back.

UPDATE: My thanks to naturalist Bill MacIlveen for satisfying my curiosity. He tells me that the unknown mystery plant is Daphne mezereum, and that the sedum matches Sedum caeruleum. Both are garden escapees and not native to North America. The bright red fruit of Daphne mezereum are dispersed in bird droppings but are very poisonous to humans. 

“Eat or be eaten”: Bird-eating deer

Deer by Craig Lewis via Wikimedia Commons
By Craig Lewis via Wikimedia Commons

Seriously. Bird-eating deer.

Apparently, deer will snack on nestlings and even on adult birds whenever they get the chance. What’s more, deer aren’t the only herbivores that occasionally supplement their diet with meat and poultry. Cows have been caught doing it too. The usual suspects such as weasel, fox, and other carnivores don’t seem to do half as much nest looting as the creatures we like to think of as either strictly prey or “steak-on-a-plate”.

It’s time to revisit that conversation between Bambi and Thumper:

Young Thumper: Those are birds.
Young Bambi: Bur… Bur!
Young Thumper: Look! He’s trying to talk with his mouth full.
Young Bambi: Bur!
Girl Bunny: He’s trying to say “bird”.
Young Thumper: Say “bird”.
[wiggles his nose]
Young Bambi: Bur.
[wiggles his nose]
Young Thumper: Bird.
Young Bambi: Bur!
Young Thumper: Spit out the feathers, Bambi, it’ll be easier to talk.
Other rabbits: Come on, say “bird”. Say “bird”!
Young Bambi: Bird! Delicious!

As one commenter wrote on this rather delightfully written article,

“the end is deer”.

Read: Field Cameras Catch Deer Eating Birds—Wait, Why Do Deer Eat Birds?

The ignoble end of Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon

Just over 100 years ago Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, died. The story of Passenger Pigeons captured my imagination (and sorrow) when I was a child, and – knowing that they would have filled the skies over my home today in Southern Ontario – it still does.

John James Audubon’s description of an immense flock of Passenger Pigeons in flight is gorgeously evocative:

I cannot describe to you the extreme beauty of their aerial evolutions, when a Hawk chanced to press upon the rear of a flock. At once, like a torrent, and with a noise like thunder, they rushed into a compact mass, pressing upon each other towards the centre. In these almost solid masses, they darted forward in undulating and angular lines, descended and swept close over the earth with inconceivable velocity, mounted perpendicularly so as to resemble a vast column, and, when high, were seen wheeling and twisting within their continued lines, which then resembled the coils of a gigantic serpent.

It must have resembled this murmuration of Starlings on an unimaginable scale:

And what about this moving description, by a Potawatomi tribal leader named Simon Pokagon, in 1850:

“I have stood by the grandest waterfall of America,” he wrote, “yet never have my astonishment, wonder, and admiration been so stirred as when I have witnessed these birds drop from their course like meteors from heaven.”

In 1831 Audubon was convinced that “nothing but the gradual diminution of our forests can accomplish their decrease”. And he was right – although it wasn’t gradual, it was catastrophic. Vast areas of the Passenger Pigeon’s habitat and the trees that supplied their food were cleared beginning around 1860. People harvested millions of Passenger Pigeons on an industrial scale. By1890 the bird that had darkened the skies for days on end was an unusual sight indeed.

As an aside, the botanist in me wonders what impact the dung produced by these flocks must have made on the soil ecology of forests and grasslands. I imagine we’ll never know how these ecosystems were affected, but it must have been far-reaching.

Extinction was an undignified and humiliating business. Errol Fuller, in this book “The Passenger Pigeon” wrote:

Martha was on her own, and she lived on in solitary confinement for four more years…. During this period of her life Martha got steadily slower and more infirm. At times she became so immobile that during busy periods her enclosure was roped off to prevent visitors from getting too close; otherwise they would throw sand and other objects to encourage her to move.

Poor Martha died on September 1, 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.

More: Why the Passenger Pigeon went extinct

A bird in hand

We keep our patio door wide open during these warm summer days, and the other morning a curious Blue Tit overshot the birdfeeder and landed right inside our living room. I didn’t notice him until Jake stumbled by in his arthritic clumsiness; it put the little creature into a flutter and gave away his hiding place behind the curtain.

I put my hands out to catch him  and called a soft “psich psich” as I reached out, hoping to let him know that I meant no harm. It seemed to work. He calmed right down, and didn’t object when I carefully cupped his fragile little body. But I was too concerned about hurting him; although he allowed me to handle him he quickly become impatient with my diffidence, and squirmed right out of my hands and onto my index finger. I straightened up in surprise and turned toward Laird with my little passenger; Laird’s eyebrows shot up, and his eyes and mouth softened into an “awwwww…”. I was pretty filled with awe myself. I turned again, walked out to the patio and sat down, and the little bird stayed on my finger for a full five minutes. Laird and I chuckled at the little fellow’s interest in us, he looked me up and down and stared me in the eye, and swivelled his head to study Laird quite thoroughly too. I was utterly charmed. Finally, reluctantly, the little fellow flew off into the bushes.

I often wonder now whether this bird now recognizes me when I step out the door, but I’m sure we humans all look alike to him. And more confusingly, we change our plumage every morning. How’s a bird to know who’se who?

Fur loving flocks

Speaking of birds, I have quite a nice group of regular visitors to the bird feeders outside my windows. Great Tits, Blue Tits, Robins (the "Christopher Robin" kind), Nuthatches, Magpies, Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Chaffinches, Blackbirds and and other assorted ground-dwelling Thrushes… and boy, they’re noisy. Those Tits can belt out a tune that pierces concrete. At 6:30 in the morning…

Anyway, I get a great kick out of feeding them, but the most fun was watching the birds go crazy over the wads and wads of dog hair that came out of Jake’s recent encounter with a brush. I spread a shockingly large quantity of fur (I really should brush him more often) through bushes and along the ground, knowing as I did it that unless the birds acted fast I’d soon be handling complaints from one fastidious elderly neighbour or another. The birds did not disappoint – by morning they were all out there, pulling on it and rolling in it and generally whooping it up. It’s mostly all gone now, keeping more than a few clutches of eggs soft and warm through the last cool days of spring.

Here’s some more good ideas for nesting materials, in case you don’t have a shedding dog conveniently at hand…

Neat vs. Nature

Gardeners are hard at work on the grounds around my apartment building, and I have to say I have decidedly mixed feelings about it. There are lots of jungly plots around the place, flowering bushes that over the years have grown out of control and melded into wild and impenetrable batches of shrub. The gardeners are pruning hard, untangling the impossible growth and scraping the ground around them bare of leaves and branches and other accumulated debris.

On one hand, the gardener in me appreciates the return to order, and looks forward to a nice display in the spring. On the other hand, the wildlife lover in me grieves. The birds use those little wild places for cover and nesting, and I’ve seen hedgehogs run in and out of those bushes in the dark hours of the evening. It’s a tough time of year for a hedgehog to be evicted from a warm nest.