Backyard Birding 2

This year because of the pandemic and stay home order I have not gone birding outside my neighbourhood so I am really happy to have more species of birds visiting my backyard. Including the birds I saw flying overhead I must have seen twenty-three species or more so far. I wonder whether it is a result of me becoming more in tune to the birds in my immediate environment and can identify more of them these days. Or, there are really more birds attracted to my backyard. I am trying to make my place more bird friendly by putting up more feeding stations and planting more native plants, I even put in a DIY bird bath. There is so much to learn in birding, I believe beside being delighted by our feathered friends, a better future for birds is ultimately beneficial to humans.

I like to share some of my birding experience in my own backyard in 2021 with you.

When winter had lost its bite but there was still snow on the ground I saw my first Dark Eye Junco in my backyard. It was scratching at the ground in an open patch of soil among the winter die-back of the perennials. I have never seen a Junco outside of the birding trips I had away from the city so I was overjoyed that it would hang around for a couple days. A few days later I saw a Mourning dove sitting on the same spot in the garden where I saw the junco earlier. There used to be Mourning doves in our neighbourhood and their mournful cooing could be heard in the early morning and the silhouette with the pointy tail often seen on the powerline. But then they disappeared from the neighbourhood and I hardly see or hear them anymore. It is human nature to take things or granted when they are deemed common. It is the same trait that make us take for granted the important people in our lives and full of regrets later. I wonder will we ever stop taking the Rock Doves aka pigeons for granted because they are everywhere even though they are quite pretty with many shades and plumage patterns. They even had a part in Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution . Some vegetables growers even consider them ” rats with wings “. Alas, I don’t think we will ever change.

When spring brings the American Robins and Northern Cardinals back to my backyard to start courting and eventually raising another generation the backyard is full of their calls and trilling songs. I have seen a robin digging for worms in the lawn before but not often seeing it actually got one. This year almost every time I saw a robin it had a worm hanging from its beak. I wonder is it an indication of the soil in my backyard is healthier than before. The robins have been raising families in my yard for years and I have seen the sky blue eggs nestled in nest hidden deep in the hedge and fledglings practicing their flights and occasionally fell to earth. Their plumage of orange and black are quite attractive and their songs melodic but still I often heard myself said to my friend when we were birding ” It’s just a robin “. I should really make an effort to look at a robin may be I will learn something new.

I think the female Cardinal is exceptionally pretty for a female bird when most female birds’ plumages are mostly brown and a shadow of the male birds’ more colourful patterns. It may not be as striking as the bright red male but its plumage of the more subtle colours of apricot and pink have it own charm. The Blue Jays rarely come to my backyard but I can hear them screaming in the neighbouring trees. One day I saw one flew down into my yard and perched on top of the shepherd hook, it was the closest I have come near a blue jay. It was such a handsome bird, its blue and white feathers with an accent of black looked dazzling but it did not stay long and soon took off.

The Chickadee’s signature Chicka-dee-dee call can be heard all over the yard but the birds themselves are more elusive. You are lucky to catch a glimpse of them when they land on the feeder, they will grab a sunflower seed and immediately take off to a tree to eat the seed in peace . I have seen a few of them dashing back and forth between the feeder and the trees along the fence that separates us from our neighbour. So different from the friendly chickadees that ate out of my hand at the ” Chickadee alley ” on previous birding trips. The White Breasted Nuthatch is another bird that is more often heard than seen. A lovely bird in white and greyish blue with a black crown but its call is a harsh yak, yak. The smaller and more colourful Red Breasted Nuthatch on the other hand has been seen at the feeder a few times. All these birds are adding colour and drama to the backyard, making sitting outside a more pleasant experience.

The woodpeckers soon found the suet cage. Before I set out the suet I only heard them drumming somewhere in trees nearby or if I am lucky to spot one sitting among the trees or walking along the tree trunk after tracking the sharp chip calls for awhile. The tiny Downy woodpecker would squeeze itself all the way into the cage and attack the suet up close while the much larger Hairy woodpecker only pecked at the suet block from outside the cage with their longer bill. They are beautiful birds with black and white colour pattern, especially the male with the added red spot on the nape. Their presence enlivens my yard and I don’t think I will get tired of watching them.

I have put up a few bird feeders in my yard and often see birds crowding around one or the other. The House sparrows are the most frequent visitors, there are more female ones than the male but the male bird is very aggressive and often kicks the other birds off that are there first. The smaller finches are coming to the feeders more often now. From a distance it is hard to tell a female finch from a female sparrow because both are small brown birds but up close you can see the female finch has streaks in its body and is slimmer. The male sparrow with the grey head and white throat, black bib and chocolate brown overall is quite good looking but can’t compare to the eye catching orangish-red of the male House finch and the strawberry-red of the male Purple finch. These strutting male birds are wall-flowers beside the male American Gold finch. The Gold finch with a bright yellow body, a black crown, black primary and an orange beak twittering sweetly on the treetop of the Cedar is like a Christmas tree ornament. It seems to have a calmer temperament often observed feeding together with other birds. Even the female Gold finch is pretty with its olive green- yellowish body. The happy couple can be seen feeding at the Nyjer seeds feeder with the much smaller slits before retiring to the nearby Lilac bush.

These are mostly returning birds and I hope they will keep take up permanent residence in my backyard. I have been very lucky to see a few migrating warblers in my yard around the week of Mother’s Day and I was over the moon when a pair of Rose breasted Grosbeak came too and I am happy to share with you how I found these birds.

One morning when I came outside I heard this unfamiliar bird call and started tracking the sound. It seemed to come from the group of tall trees next to the Cedar. By following the sound I finally saw a small bird perching on a branch in the tall Elm singing loudly. It reminded me of the tiny Chestnut-Sided warbler I saw one time in the States singing loudly high up on a tree, my impression then was what a small bird with a strong pipe. I studied the feature of the bird carefully with my binoculars and realized it was a Nashville warbler. It was not moving around a lot so I had time to observe its bluish head with the white eye-ring and the yellow throat to confirm its identity. It was a Nashville warbler! Later I noticed some movement in the Choke Cherry tree and trained my binoculars there. There was definitely a bird in the tree but it was moving too fast, up and down and around, slipping through the branches. There were too many leaves in the way to get a good look. Finally when it moved to a more open spot in the tree and I saw a tiny bird with a blue and white pattern and a black throat. I suspected it to be a male Black throated Blue warbler but couldn’t believe my luck and looked very hard for the “window pane”, a little white patch on the wing. I had first seen the brownish female Black throated Blue warbler at Colonel Samuel Smith Park when another birder pointed out the defining wing patch for that species. It was exciting, this could just be the second time I saw a male Black throated Blue warbler in all the time I have been birding. I tried to keep the bird in view but it never stay still and finally lost it when it dropped to the lower shrub and disappeared among the vegetation by the fence. I could tell it was still there by the trembling of the leaves and twigs but could not see the bird itself. Luckily I saw it again a couple days later in the same area I spotted it the first time. The Nashville warbler was hanging around the following day and singing its song. As I was looking for it among the elm tree I did not see it immediately but spotted another warbler. At first glimpse I noticed yellow and some black streaks so I thought it may be a Magnolia warbler but in a closer look I saw the black throat so it couldn’t be. Quickly going through my head the warblers with a black throat I came to the conclusion of that of a Black-Throated Green warbler and later confirmed the identification using my field guide. Wow, three warblers in a row found in my backyard, it was almost like my own “Big Year” moment. I didn’t know there was more excitement instore.

A few sparrows were crowding at the sunflower seed feeder, they were messy eaters and dropped a lot of the seeds onto the ground and sometimes a bird or two would be scratching for seeds on the ground around the feeder. One afternoon I noticed one of the sparrows on the ground looked bigger and a bit different, I focused my binoculars on it. It turned out to be a White Crown sparrow. With that I now had seen four different species of sparrow in my backyard. The resident House sparrows are here all year round and can be seen and heard in the bushes and hedges all the time. The less common Chipping sparrows can be heard buzzing high up in the trees in summer but rarely seen. I only saw them when they started coming to the feeders last year and have learned to identify them by their smaller and finer silhouettes without seeing the field marks of the russet crown and black eyeline. I believe the White Crown sparrow and the Savannah sparrow I spotted among a group of sparrows on another day were just passing through. I have not seen these two species of sparrows in the nearby ravine when I have seen others species such as the Song sparrow and Field sparrow so I am really grateful they had stopped by my backyard and I could have missed them totally.

I first noticed the male grosbeak at the feeder when I was watering the vegetables in the morning and soon it was gone. I could not contain my excitement and rushed into the house to tell my husband but he never saw it. In the afternoon when I was reading outside I would scan the trees whenever I was aware of some movements in them. I thought I saw a very big female house sparrow perching on the Elm tree. It was not moving around and through my binoculars I could see the prominent white eyebrows and the streaked breast. At first I wonder would it be a female Purple finch that also has white eyebrow and a streaky body but it was too big, especially the bill looked too stocky more like that of a grosbeak . Then suddenly I remembered the male grosbeak I saw in the morning and knowing female Rose Breasted Grosbeak was nothing like the male and it had busy white eyebrows and streaks all over the body instead of just some near the flanks. I was quite sure it was a female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak when the male Grosbeak showed up with its resplendent rose-red triangle on a snow white breast and black head and tail with white wing bars. The male grosbeak went straight to the feeder and kicked all the other birds off but the female had a more cautious approach. It moved to the feeder in stages, it was sitting and watching from a higher branch of the tree then dropped down to a lower branch and sat there for awhile longer before flying to the feeder. They were hanging around for most of the afternoon then the male flew away and not seen again. The female flew back up to the Elm tree and disappeared into the foliage of the upper reach of the tree. I searched the elm tree carefully the next day and thought I saw her with a few baby grosbeaks. It might be just my imagination but a fantastic birding experience none the less!

A pandemic prayer

Our Heavenly Father

Hear Thy children’s

Prayers

Please grant us Hope

Mercy and Understanding

To face our loss

With strength and dignity

x x x

Long have we been waiting

To see the light

Again

How we’ll love to

sing loud and touch your faces

Dance through the night

and we will part no more

Amen

The stunning staircase I saw in Marseille

I am partial to railway stations and staircases but the staircase of Saint Charles station in Marseille is really something to behold. The stately station sitting on top of a hill with an expensive terrace, overlooking the city center. A gigantic staircase cascades down the slope linking the station at the top to the Boulevard d’ Athenes at the bottom. The sheer scale of the staircase, 16 meter high and 104 steps in total, dwarfs the station; you can only see part of the stone facade of the central hall and the glass gable of the railyard when looking up from the boulevard. Travelers moving up and down look tiny among the wide stone steps and the multiple monuments placed at various levels of the seven landings. There are numerous statues and carvings that embellished the glorious past of Marseille, if one knows the prominent history of this oldest city in France will have a better appreciation of the symbolism in all those fruits, flowers, harvest and lion depicted on the balustrades and pedestals scattered at different locations. But the most spectacular sculptures to me are the two soaring pillars with tapered ends, topped with lanterns, standing guard at the eastern and western franks of the staircase in the middle landing. There are numerous symbols and dates carved onto the panels of the pillars. At the widen base of the eastern pillar is an intricate sculpture of a Goddess sitting regally on a boat with her attending nymphs, the brow of the boat was decorated with a ram head. The sculpture at the western pillar is more or less the same except the central figure is a different hero in ancient Greek mythology. Unfortunately I did not know both legends they were depicting at the time but I could still admire the artistry. Trailing down the immense staircase are two trains of antique lamp posts interspersed by delicate metal railings of the same green colour. This set up divided the whole staircase into a wider central section with two smaller sections on either side. I did not know the green colour of the lamp posts and railings was painted on or was the result of oxidized copper but when coupled with the white stylistic lamp shades, it created a genteel atmosphere. The lamp post itself is a work of art: a white globe rested on a shallow basket secured by four thin wire to a cap sitting on top of the post , further down four smaller orbs were hanging like acorns from a fancy frame pointing into the four cardinal directions, the long and narrow post continued to descend and flare into an elegant stand at the base. We arrived at the station in the morning so the lamps were not lit then, but after a day exploring the Vieux Port and Notre Dame de la Garde we returned to the station when it was dark . It was an awesome sight when all the lamps and lanterns on the staircase were lit. Seeing the staircase at the Saint Charles station was the high light of my trip to Marseille.

What is your accent?

Recently I read a newspaper report on the push back against accent from racialized actors in Hollywood which has a history of using accent to stereotype people of colour and as the punch lines of jokes. Worse still actors of minority background are coerced to speak with a perceived ethnic accent even when they were born and raised in the country. I suspect with the “Me Too” and BLM movements there will be a general awakening so that people will no longer suffer all kinds of injustice in silence. I have personal stories on the issue of accent and have been ruminating on the topic over the past forty years while living in Canada. The following are my reflections on “accent”.

My first awareness of accent:

My mother passed away when I was a young child so I do not have many memories of her, but I do have a partial memory of her teaching us to chant a nursery rhyme in Hakkanese. Both my parents are Hakkanese who migrated to Hong Kong from mainland China. Hong Kong was a British colony then and was a magnet to Chinese who wanted to escape communism, so Chinese of a variety of native dialects converged on this tiny, robust city. The official language was English but more than ninety percent of the population was Chinese. There was thus a need for a Chinese dialect as the unofficial language of commerce as well as of instruction in schools. That meant that Chinese with a variety of language heritages all used Cantonese in their interaction with one another. My mother was a stay-at- home mom so she mostly spoke to us in Hakkanese at home and adopted a heavily accented Cantonese when she was in public. As children we knew no better than to just learn from our parents. We were probably speaking a bastardized version of Cantonese without realizing it.

Our home was a mid- rise flat in a block of apartments at the end of a long street beside the sea. There were three other much shorter streets running parallel to our street, before one reached the main thoroughfare that had buses carrying people to other parts of the city. Our neighbourhood made up of four streets, housing a mix-used design of shops and residence, formed a self-sustaining world with its own market and even a cinema. I was taught all the names of the street and could recite our address before starting school. So it was a shock for me when, after learning how to read at school, I realized had been saying one of the street name wrong all along. It did not correspond to the street sign I was looking at. It then dawn on me that the way we speak at home was not exactly the same as everyone at school. It was my first awareness of accent.

Upfront and personal with accent:

I had always been a shy child so when my schoolmates sometimes commented that I spoke funny, this just pushed me to be more quiet and wary of talking to anyone outside the family. It had become habitual for my classmates to take over when teachers were frustrated with me not speaking up. It was a case of selective mutism before there was even such a concept. Yet because of it I have gained empathy with children who suffer the same condition, first as a parent with my daughter and later as a teacher with other elementary school students.

My father passed away suddenly of an heart attack in my teenage years and our family fortune changed overnight, affecting my second elder sister’s choice of a husband. A family friend had an aunt living in Jamaica looking for a nice Chinese Christian wife for her oldest son and he recommended my sister. My future brother-in-law was visiting Hong Kong with a cousin to check out the candidate. I had been going to school in an English immersion program for years so I was confident to converse in English and was drafted to welcome them. To my surprise and embarrassment, I could not understand a single word from what they said in their heavy Jamaican accent. I had to concentrate hard to catch a word here and there. After a little while, with a strategic nod of the head and a smile on my face, we managed to maintain a semblance of conversation. Now, years later, I have no problem with the sing-song Caribbean accent of people originating from different islands in the Caribbean, though I notice that my husband still has to struggle to understand my brother-in-law at occasional family get-togethers.

In my first year of undergraduate, I was sitting in a university lecture hall waiting for my professor to start on my first class in Physics. While the hall was filling up, she welcomed the students by introducing herself a little bit. She was a German professor, middle-aged, with kind brown eyes and a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto. This bit of information helped me understand the trouble I had in the first couple of lectures with her -there was a term she used repeatedly that I failed to comprehend at first. Later I realized that her German accent had distorted the word “energy” in a way that I was not familiar. Once I adapted to her accent I had no further problems understanding her teaching.

After I graduated and before returning to Hong Kong, a friend had invited me to visit with her parents in a small Ontario town for a week. On the way driving there we made a brief stop at a small cafe to use the washroom and get a snack. When I asked for a slice of a delicious-looking chocolate cake, the server just stared at me. At first I thought she had not heard me, so I repeated my request louder but she still looked befuddled. My friend stepped in to tell her what I wanted and she immediately served me the slice of cake. I wondered if my accent really so heavy that she could not understand or if it was more her lack of exposure to racialized customers in a small town. All my Caucasian friends in Toronto had no problems understanding me.

When is accent is not just about accent:

China is a big country with many regional differences in terms of geography, cultural practices and languages so it is no surprise that two Chinese with different dialects may not understand each other. Some people may have a natural talent for picking up a new dialect but most people will be accented by their native dialect when attempting another. In Hong Kong with every Chinese speaking Cantonese in the public, one could hear a range of accents without raising an eyebrow. Our neighbour was originally from Shanghai so her Cantonese was heavily accented but it did not prevent her from talking to my stepmother, whose native dialect was Cantonese. They chatted every morning at the window in their respective kitchens across the open space between our two buildings. Accent was just a facet of life, perceived neither good nor bad, until people designated it a symbol of social status. I remembered overhearing a conversation between my father and his business partner when I was a child. He was Hakkanese like my father but had a warped view of the Hakkanese dialect. He said nobody who was anybody spoke Hakkanese those days, that it was a backward language he would not be caught dead speaking in public. In contrast, my father still spoke Hakkanese with other Hakkanese whenever and wherever they met. It was the first time I realized that an accent is more than an accent. We did not speak Hakkanese at home anymore after my mother passed. My father had remarried and our stepmother did not know the dialect so we only spoke Cantonese from then on. I remembered the frustration I felt when some of our cousins teased me about losing our dialect, when it was easy for them to keep theirs because their parents were still speaking Hakkanese to them at home. It did motivate me to retain whatever Hakkanese I could glean from our weekly attendance at the church. Our pastor was a Hakkanese man, and although the rest of the service was conducted in Cantonese, he always delivered the sermon in Hakkanese. Thanks to him, today I can still somewhat converse with another person in Hakkanese if that is the only language that person can muster.

The only school that I went to growing up in Hong Kong was a Catholic Convent school. This meant that the head of the school was the Mother Superior of a Catholic denomination and at the end of the day, nuns from sister schools would return to the convent located at the upper level of the main school building. The teaching staff was made up of mostly Chinese teachers, with a sprinkling of foreigners. We were learning English with a spectrum of accents depending on who was teaching us at the time. It could be a teacher who had graduated from the University of Hong Kong with our own British colonial accent. Or it could be teachers graduated from oversea universities in the United States, Canada or Australia and bringing with them a diversity of accents. We were also exposed to the Italian accent from some of the nuns and an Indian accent from a couple of the foreign teachers. Accent was never an issue to us, we were just trying to learn English and worked hard to be as fluent as possible. Especially for the foreign teachers whose mother tongue was English, it would be unfathomable to us to say they have an accent. To think those teachers have an accent implied deficiency in their English, we would not like to think less of our teachers, but it might be different among the teaching staff.

In Canada when someone says a person has an accent it often carries a derogatory connotation, implying that the person is too stupid to speak properly or worse still, has an inferior background that can be dismissed out of hand. It is almost as if there were a certain professional standard in speech expected from racialized people before their expertise can be evaluated on its own merit. It is often used as an excuse that an accent is an impediment to the clear communication required in a job, so it becomes a barrier to any job. But looking more closely, one sees that this is often tied to racism, where it is predominately people of colour who are advised to improve their accent in order to secure a job or to advance in their career. But an accent is not a hindrance if it is a British or other European accent, then it is considered a reflection of sophistication. Who does not want to have a posh British accent? I had actually heard someone on the staff at a school where I taught once commenting on another teacher’s Australian accent as “music to her ears”. I had found that that same accent made this particular teacher harder to understand at times but I never made an issue of it and tried to accommodate her as best as I could. I was even advised to pay for a language coach to get rid of my Hong Kong accent just before I graduated from the teachers’ training program, as this was supposed to make it easier for me to secure a teaching job. But it was so expensive that I could not afford it. Later on when I was teaching, a senior staff member with Philippine heritage advised me to carefully observe how the White people talk and to try to imitate them. He was popular with the staff, laughing and joking with them in the staffroom, though later I would hear them mocking him behind his back. So to me it appeared that it was just a charade that he was one of them. It assaulted my sensibility but offended my principles more, since we were supposed to be teaching children the importance of a multicultural and multiracial society where everyone has value and the right to succeed. It was hypocritical to imply your language was inferior and the path to success was to imitate the dominant culture.

It can have a corrosive influence on a young mind when society ties accent to social status, which can from there easily mutate into racism. I have a young neighbour who once told me, her mother said she could talk to me because at least my English was fluent. Did her mother worry that by exposing her child to my accent I would corrupt her language development? May be I had internalized this inferiority because besides reading to my children daily myself, I also made a conscious effort to expose them to proper English by listening to the program ” Music and Story for children” on the radio. Whenever a Caucasian tried to speak Chinese even with an atrocious accent he or she was applauded and the effort of trying was amplified and appreciated. But the same courtesy is not returned to people of colour. The issue of accent cannot be divorced from the discussions of racism -although that is an extensive topic for another day.

I have noticed a curious phenomenon while teaching young children in kindergartens. I have never had a single incident where the children had trouble understanding me, but occasionally a student from a higher grade would complain about not understanding me because of my accent. I was puzzled by this until I realized that the younger the children, the more open-minded to languages they are. They do not attach value to any particular language. They simply try to decode whichever language they are exposed with the innate human trait of understanding their surrounding and developing meaningful relationships- an instinct essential to their survival. As they grow older they continuously receive hints and messages from society that only certain way of speaking and pronouncing a word are acceptable. Unless they have experienced a wider range of speech models, they can easily fall into the pitfall of many monolingual people’s thinking -that there is only one way to speak English. They do not think they need to make an effort to understand the other person unless he or she is speaking standard English.

I had a negative experience with such a scenario in Toronto a few years back. I saw a discount on a shredder in the flyer from a local hardware store and was excited to get the machine to shred all my banking and investment documents before recycling them. When I arrived at the store, a young guy came up to greet me. When I told him what I was looking for, he just stared at me and said repeatedly he could not understand what I was looking for. I left in disgust after telling him a couple more times with care but receiving no reaction other than him standing there still waiting for me to say it with a standard English accent. It was an act of White privilege on full display. It would not have been difficult for him to take a flyer and allow me to show him the item I wanted if he had really wanted to put the customer first.

This of course in no way compares to the racism Black people in our country must endure on a daily basis due to their accent. With my family background I am familiar with the Caribbean accent— I have family members and relatives scattered among different islands in the region. Those societies are very multiracial and everyone speaks with that lilting accent regardless of their ethnic heritage. You can not tell if a person is Black or Chinese just by listening to the sound of the voice. Yet a lot of people in North America equate the Caribbean accent to the Black voice and would refuse services to a person over the phone due to some prejudices. Since I have been teaching at inner city schools which are very multiracial and multicultural, I have come into contact with Black students and their families on a regular basis and heard a wide range of accents from the African continent and some South American countries. Black culture is not a monolith and we often impose stereotypes on people we are not familiar with. Our prejudices often say more about our own ignorance and desire to put people down in order to cover our own sense of inferiority. We need more education on the achievement of Black people and their contribution on the world stage if we are to counter anti-Black racism.

If we just acknowledge we all have accent

I once heard on the radio a man talking about ” Airport English” as a useful tool for world peace, and I whole heartedly agreed with him. Anyone who has travelled by air and spent some time in the airport would notice people from all kinds of backgrounds trying to communicate with one another in a broken English. It is a beautiful thing to behold. English is still a dominant global language so with a little bit of English you can travel most of the world and get help when needed or render assistance to a stranger on occasions. I remembered that on my trip back to Toronto from Hong Kong many years ago, there was some kind of delay and I was waiting in the Vancouver airport with many disappointed passengers. I noticed a young woman looking distraught so I tried to initiated conversation with her. She was a young Korean bride with only a little bit of heavily accented English and was on her way to meet her new husband but the flight was delayed and we had to go through the lengthy procedure of declaring goods at customs, so she was in a panic. I spoke with her slowly using body language and hand gestures to make her understand that I would stay at her side. Finally I managed to shepherd her through customs and she saw then that she was going to be fine for the rest of the journey as it turned out we were on the same flight to Toronto. There was such a transformation of her face when she finally relaxed to smile and applied some makeup in anticipation of meeting her fiance at the airport. Before we boarded the plane, she disappeared into the gift shop and returned with a beautiful pin of a shellacked real rosebud to give to me. I have kept it to this day.

We are a product of our geography and culture and each location and history produces its own unique speech pattern. This add precious colour to the individuals of a particular place and period. We all have an accent of some kinds, albeit there is a long history of wars and oppression based on languages, we can do better today with advanced communication technologies. They can enable us to improve understanding of one another and to appreciate our differences more, rather than to let ignorance drive us apart. So instead of deciding who has an accent , we should acknowledge that we all have accent and not be afraid to ask, ” What is your accent ?” if we want to learn more about each other. For when there is more understanding among us, there is more of a chance for peace to grow.

Squirrels can strategize ?!

Do not be fooled by the bright eyes and bushy tail, squirrels are much smarter than you think.  I honestly believe squirrels can strategize.  I am speaking from experience after pitting my wit against the squirrels to keep them away from the bird feeder in my backyard.  It is a blow to the ego when you lose to the little critters.

Squirrels are so darn cute when they are chasing one another up and down the trees and swinging across branches playing tag. Or just look at that little squirrel standing still on its hind legs, holding a nut in its front paws nibbling quietly so sweet and adorable.  But when a squirrel is hanging onto a suet cage, digging out the food that is meant for the birds and is sprawling upside down over a small panorama bird feeder it is instantly transformed into a monstrous bandit in fur. It is a rodent after all!

The following is my story in the attempts to discourage the squirrels to gorge on the hull less sunflower seeds.

After looking up squirrel proof ideas on the internet the first method I tried was using the slinky which I already have one from my children’s old toys.  It supposes to work by bouncing the squirrel up and down when it tries to climb onto the slinky.  So I got to work and tied the slinky to the top of the pole of the shepherd hook with a length of fishing line.  I got the slinky wrapped around the pole and hanging nicely for a few days with no sign of squirrels around.  It seemed like a success but I would like to see it in action and I got my wish granted but not the result I hoped for.  I was watching from the upstairs window when a grey squirrel arrived to bust the slinky defense.  It made its way cautiously  to the garden, stepped onto the wooden divider and simply jumped upon the wire frame I am using to give support to the peonies.  In one swift move it was boosted half way up the slinky so when it grabbed onto it the bouncing effect was negligible, it climbed quickly upward and leapt over easily to grasp the metal ring of the feeder and proceeded to eat the sunflower seeds.  I took down the slinky the following day and relocated the shepherd hook further away.

Next up I fortified the bird feeder itself.  I used some wire from a leftover coil of cable consisted of four strands of wire.  I untwisted a double strands and cut off a significant length to wrap around the metal ring that functioned as a perch at the base of the feeder.  I improvised some kind of  deterrent by winding the wire along the circumference and double back at intervals to form a loop which I later twisted in to a spike with a blunt end. I don’t really want to hurt the squirrels after all.  It seemed to work for a few days and then the squirrels were back.  Again I witnessed how a smaller black squirrel able to defeat my contraption when looking out the upstairs window one morning. It climbed up the pole quickly and stretched its body across the open space to grab onto a spike with one paw then let go of its feet to swing across to grab the metal ring with the other paw. It was hanging in the air momentarily then it pulled its feet in and do a chin up to access the sunflower seeds.  When it got its fill, it jumped off  and landed on the ground smoothly to run off into the bush.

I decided to follow up with a double whammy to deter the squirrels.  I modified the spikes to make them sharper and not able to bear the weight of a squirrel.  I did it by untwisting each spike to the base and cutting the wire in the middle to separate the double stands into four single stand, then I made two pairs of thinner spikes by winding each pair partially and bending the free ends in opposite angle.  This way the whole circumference of the metal ring was covered with threatening looking wire. I also added hot chili peppers to the bird seeds because it is said that squirrels do not like the taste of hot chili but it won’t affect the birds at all. This method seemed to work for awhile, the wire spikes were being pulled helter-skelter which showed the squirrels had tried to breach the defense but the bird seeds level stayed about the same. I suspected it took the squirrels more effort to reach the bird feeder but even when they were successful the seeds tasted awful to them. So after a few days I took off all the wire from the feeder and just relied on the hot chili to deter the squirrels. I also learned that squirrels do not like the smell of coffee ground so I sprinkled old coffee ground at the base of the pole and smeared the fresher one along the pole itself as an added layer of defense. The organic deterrents seemed to be able to hold the squirrels off until the flavour from the chili and coffee ground had diminished over time and they would return.

When I ground up the hot chili peppers to mix in with the sunflower seeds I sneezed violently so I tried to experiment with another method without using the hot chili.  I pushed different length of sticks into the ground at all angles around the base of the pole to deter the squirrels from climbing the pole. I saw the sticks were being disturbed but did not see a squirrel at the feeder so I thought it is a success but my victory was short lived. After a few days I noticed the bird seeds were again depleting rapidly so the squirrels must be back at work, yet the sticks appeared undisturbed since I fixed it last time.  I wonder would the squirrels be taking a flying leap to bypass the sticks altogether. I got my hunch confirmed one morning, I was watching some finches feeding merrily at the feeders when suddenly they all took off and out of nowhere a squirrel appeared on the pole ready to grab onto the bird feeder with the sunflower seeds. Oh well it looked like the squirrels had figured out a way to defeat the sticks set up.

After that I brushed some vegetable oil onto the pole so it would be too slippery for the squirrels to climb onto it but it dried out quickly so it was useless.  I guess if I really want to go that route I would have to use grease and keep reapplying it onto the pole.  I am kind of finicky about getting my fingers sticky from the grease and do I really want to expand so much time and effort against the squirrels.  May be I am going about the whole thing all wrong, I should just let the squirrels have a share of the bird seeds.  It looks like the squirrels always find a way to defeat every obstacle I put in their way.  I feel like I am engaging in a battle with them and they are winning the arm race.  It is possible I may be speeding up their evolution unwittingly when they were forced to come up with different ways to reach the sunflower seeds. We certainly do not want to have another wannabe raccoon to deal with in our city.

 

Milk and hot sauce ( an original short story )

The clouds parted, moonlight flooded the garden for an instant.  The back of the house was lit up and a gaping hole of darkness was seen where the back door was left open.  A curious creature was partially discerned just inside.

Upstairs in a bedroom a boy opened his eyes and a smile spread across his face.  He got out of bed quietly and tip-toed to the door. He put his ears against the door, when he was certain no one was still awake he eased open the door and moved down the stairs carefully.  The house was silent in the dead of night and in the soft light he could see his small friend had flattened himself against the wall at the bottom of the stairs.  He put a finger on his lips and used his other hand to signal they should move to the back of the house.

They moved like smoke in the dimness, past the formal parlour and the dinning-room.  They skipped the messy family-room to enter a large kitchen at the rear of the house. It was safe to turn on the light without alerting someone.  The boy first closed the back door and cleared a spot for his friend at the table.  After that he went to the refrigerator to get what his friend liked the most.  It was well-stocked but he only took out a jug of milk and a bottle of hot sauce.  He poured the milk carefully into the bowl and added a large dollop of hot sauce.  His friend had been waiting patiently with a barely suppressed excitement, as soon as the concoction was placed in front of him, he lowered his face to the bowl and started slurping.

The boy enjoyed watching his friend savoring the treat:  he raised his face and closed his eyes, the wrinkly skin around his eyes squeezed tight and a smile slowly spread a cross the face, although his lips were merely a slash it could expressed a lot of satisfaction.  While his friend was lost in ecstasy he would be thinking of what to tell him of his day and the bullying he had experienced at school.  Even though his friend never said a word he knew he could understand him perfectly and would never judge.  Like he would not think he was weird as his older brother had suggested was the reason he was picked on at school.  Nor he would think he should get out of his shell as his parents often counselled. His friend understood him completely and accepted him as he was, such unconditional love was a great comfort to him.  He could not believe the good fortune of their first encounter in the woods six months ago.

*                                       *                                  *

His older brother had gone out with friends and his parents were working late.  He loved the peace and quiet here, he did not have to worry about the bullies or the hushed conversation of concerned adults.  He liked watching the birds flying around or sitting up in the trees.  He often saw colourful birds flitting among the branches and he liked the yellow one with orange streaks the best.  They made nice sound too and he had tried to whistle in imitation of their songs.  He like watching squirrels dashing up the trees or other small rodents scurrying about in the under bush. He could spend hours in the woods day dreaming.  He was just walking on a trail absently when he stumbled on a rock.  He picked it up and realized it was not a rock at all. He examined it more closely and saw that it was a type of capsule.  It looked metallic and covered in soot and felt a bit warm.  He started rubbing at the surface to get the soot off, imagining himself to be Aladdin discovering the magic lamp and calling up the genie.  He was beyond surprise when he heard a click and the capsule opened to reveal a humanoid creature shrouded in a white material.  It had a big head and a tiny body.  Its face was covered with a dark material resembling the reflective glass on an astronaut’s helmet. He was surprisingly unafraid and wondered what he should do next when the black material slid off the face of the creature and revealed a pair of the most beautiful and loving eyes he had ever seen.

He was spellbound and lifted the creature gently out of the capsule.  An amazing thing happened, as soon as the creature breathed in the air it started to grow bigger.  It reminded him of the bath toy he used to have, a little sea creature encased in a capsule and as soon as he dropped it into the water the capsule dissolved. The sea creature was liberated and started to expand several sizes over. The creature stopped growing when it reached the height of a toddler.  Its face looked like Yoda without the ears and had a much less developed mouth.  It could apparently communicate telepathically with the boy and assured him that it would not harm him, letting him know that it was a ” he” and he would need his help to secure food and shelter.

When they got back to the house, the rest of the family were home already so the boy hid his friend in the garden shed.  They developed a plan for the boy to leave the back door open at midnight and the creature would make its way into the house when it was safe to do so.  His parents were often in bed by ten pm but it would be tricky with his older brother, a typical teenager that stayed up late at odd hours.  One time when he had to use the bathroom and it was past midnight he saw light leaking out at the bottom of his brother’s bedroom.  Luckily, his room was at the other end of the hall way farthest away from the stairs.  He could easily creep downstairs to leave the door open for his friend without being noticed.  The Clandestine meetings had taken place most nights except when his parents were hosting a party.  Over time they had surreptitiously discovered what food and drink the creature could have and even enjoyed.

They would explore the woods together whenever the boy could be on his own which was most days. They learned about the natural world and all the living things sharing the space with them. The creature seemed to have an unlimited font of knowledge.  The boy was developing into a naturalist and engaged all his senses to explore the wonderful things they had discovered together.  During their night time visit the boy was teaching the creature about human beings by sharing his own stories in navigating the complicated relationships with his family and friends. They would discuss how to deal with the bullies too. They bonded over time. It was the first time the boy felt enthusiastic in anything. Now he felt he had something to look forward to everyday even if the bullies still bothered him at school, he would not care because he had a friend who he could confide in.  He was changing into a much more confident person and had new optimism for life.

The parents noticed the boy was much happier in recent months and seemed to be more confident too.  They caught him with a dreamy smile sometimes and attributed it to some adolescent crush at school.  Even the bullies were leaving him alone.  However, the teachers were still worried that he had the tendency to day dream in class.  The only concern the parents had for the boy was noticing dark circles appearing under his eyes lately.  They questioned him about his sleeping habit, wondering was he staying up late and not getting enough sleep. The boy denied so they put the worries aside. They also noticed the milk was consumed faster than usual but it could be expected by having two teenagers at home, yet it was a bit strange that the hot sauce was finishing faster too.

 

*                                           *                                                    *

 

 

Who would have thought milk and hot sauce could be such a desired drink, providing such joy to his friend.  He was waiting for him to finish the last drop so they could have their usual visit.  Now he was done drinking and opened his eyes to listen attentively.  The boy could not help laughing when he saw the large ring of milk mustache on his face.  He gave his friend a paper towel to clean up meanwhile he took the bowl to the sink for a quick rinse before putting it away. He was just starting to tell him about a new student in his Science class and how it was the first time he felt comfortable to approach someone in school when the light suddenly went out.  There must be a power failure, the kitchen was plunged into darkness.  The boy was startled and looked out the kitchen’s window.  The sky had a shimmering glow and a low thrumming noise was heard outside.  The wall of the kitchen began to shake too and the dogs in the neighbourhood started barking.  The boy was scared and wanted to hide but his friend let him know not to be afraid, it was just time for him to go home.  He hugged the boy and indicated he had to retrieve the capsule from the hiding place to signal to the space ship.  They both heard some movement from upstairs, the parents must be woken up by all the commotion.  The boy did not want his friend to leave but know that it was the right thing to do.  He hurried to open the backdoor and accompanied his friend into the woods. He just hoped that his parents would not notice anything amiss and went back to sleep.  He did not have to worry about his older brother who would not be woken up even by an earthquake!

There was enough light for them to find the rocks where the capsule was hidden because of the strange glow in the sky. His friend was holding the capsule in his palm and a silver beam shot up into the sky and for a split second the boy saw a different world that was home to his friend.  He would miss him but he was also happy that he was able to return to his family.  They embraced and hot tears rolled down the boy’s cheek.  He let go of his friend and watched an amber light appeared around him which eventually enveloped him. The boy raised one arm to say good bye and his friend returned the universal gesture of farewell. The amber light gradually faded away and his friend was gone. He was sad but his heart had been warmed by the kindness of his friend.  The boy started walking home in the weak light of the moon and re-entered the house with a new resolve.  He was not afraid anymore and he was going to tell his parents to call him Kevin instead of Kassandra from now on.  He believed the universe was alright because there could be friendship among the stars.

what does retirement mean to me?

I am nearing the age where retirement is a relevant issue although there is no more mandatory retirement now.  It has been reported that  a lot of people are delaying retirement or retirees have to return to work for financial reasons. I do not need the money from my job but I think I would like to keep working as a substitute teacher.  My job keeps me connected to the outside world and I really enjoy working with the students. I can work fewer hours so as not to compete too much with the younger teachers. It will be a compromise between self-interest and civic responsibility.

I have always enjoyed solitary activities so I am happy to be free to use my time as I wish and not to feel guilty of self-indulgence as long as I have discharged the few responsibilities in keeping a decent home.  I read all the time and paint and write when the spirit moves me. I watch tons of movies, videos on Netflix and Youtube.  There is a lot of  information on various subjects I am interested in available on the Internet. I am grateful I have my own home with a nice garden for me to putter around during the growing season.  I love birds and trees so I can always have fun when I go hiking or birding, whether on my own or with other enthusiasts. I think this is a golden era for retirement as long as the individual is healthy and has the means for a simple life. 

I am not antisocial but I would rather listen to interesting dialogues on the radio than engage in inane conversation with people I have no sense of connection. I am often impressed by people who can carry on an enthusiastic conversation with anybody in any situation.  They seem so friendly and enjoy the company of strangers. I cannot be so open with everybody although I always desire a deeper relationship with my family and kin.  I often wish I have a bigger heart like them and can be more relax around people. So I can feel let down when I would find out later that they do not really care about the persons they have talked to earlier nor the topics of their conversation.  It is just a convention or respond to social pressure they feel they should put on a performance for that particular situation.  Are we all just actors in a social play?  I do not subscribe to that notion.  We may have different roles in our lives but I do not want to be mere acting out a particular role. I want to embrace living and have a meaningful relationship with people in my life at every stage of my development from birth to death.  It may be an arduous journey but also a rewarding quest to know our authentic self. A philosopher had once said it was important to know thy self and I think retirement will afford me more freedom to pursuit that goal.

 

Found Object

We were poor graduate students when we got married so we never went anywhere for honeymoon.  When we found out I was pregnant we decided to visit Ottawa for celebration.  We had to be careful with our money, not to spend on anything unnecessary.  We took the Greyhound because we do not drive and it was too expensive to ride the Via Rail. We stayed at the inexpensive Holiday Inn for one night. Luckily during the early 80’s a lot of the Federal programs were free in the Capital so we could entertain ourselves for hours at the museum and art gallery courtesy of the Liberal government.

It was the weekend and the city was quiet when most of the civil servants who commuted to work were absent.  We could tour the Center Block leisurely on foot at no cost to us.  We did sight seeing on the Parliament Hill, snapping pictures of the Peace Tower, the Eternal Flame and various statutes of famous Canadians.  We enjoyed watching boats waiting to pass along the lock system of the Rideau Canal.  We bought hot dogs for lunch from the street vendor and soaked up the sun in the shadow of the gigantic spider at the National Gallery of Canada.  We walked down to the water edge but did not cross over the bridge.  We took a causal stroll along the shore, taking in the beautiful scenery.  The Library of Parliament across the water was just lovely!

In the evening we decided to look for supper in the Byward Market.  As we were walking down a side street which was pretty quiet and deserted,  something was drifting down in front of me.  I extended my hands to catch it and watched a ten dollars bill landed on my palms. I was gobsmacked!  I looked up and down the street and saw nothing unusual except silent residential buildings.  There was no other people around besides us.  It was like a gift from Heaven!  We decided to go to a movie before returning to Toronto.

 

*                                            *                                           *

 

The old wooden retaining wall on the patio must had been shifting imperceptibly for years but in recent years it was leaning over alarmingly in front of our eyes.  It finally pressed against the outdoor tap and made it impossible for me to use the garden hose.  I tried to remedy the situation before calling in a contractor to replace it with a new interlocking stone retaining wall.

I planned to dig out the old material behind the wall before I would even try to push the  heavy beam further back, away from the tap. The gap between the inner edge of the retaining wall and the big stone slabs that formed the patio was getting wider, it was more than a foot at the time.  Dead weeds and other organic matters accumulated between the space of the stone slabs to form a thick layer of dark soil. Whatever lied beneath was probably a mount of dirt that anchored the rock garden at the other end of the patio.  

I had been working steadily, scooping out a small trench with a long handle shovel designed for working in small space.  It was tedious to dig but it was not too bad in the beginning. The top layer was good soil that I could simply dump into the garden. But after that was a different matter, lying below was mostly poor sandy soil mixed in with scree.  I had to set it aside carefully in various containers and strong cardboard boxes for later disposal.  I was working at it for a few days when I made a discovery.  Half way down the cavity I had excavated was a big lump of rock.  It was about the size of two fists joined together and encrusted in dirt but I love rocks.  I took it inside the house and cleaned it carefully with detergent. After all the dirt and grime was washed away a beautiful translucent pink crystal emerged.  It was a Rose Quartz!  The many facets and striations on the quartz held the history of its struggle in the depth of the earth. I wished I know more about geology to understand its origin. 

I am very pleased with this found object but also mystified who would choose to bury such a lovely crystal.  I have placed it on a window sill in the kitchen where it is getting a lot of sun to compensate for all that time it was shrouded in darkness.  It is a queen among all the other rocks surrounding it.  It always brings a smile to my face whenever I lay eyes on it.

 

*                                            *                                                *

 

I love reading thriller especially of the international intrigue genre so you can imagine my amazement when I discovered an English, New York Times #1 best seller in an open book case outside a building affiliated with a church  in a small German town.

It was a chanced occurrence, we were going to visit the City Hall but it was closed on this day.  So we were just exploring the neighbourhood and happened to walk past the building and noticed the books. They were free for people to help themselves.  All the books there were in German except this oneIt was like the book was waiting for me to come along all this time across the ocean.  It was a thick paperback and in pristine condition like it was never been read. I could not wait to sink my teeth into it.  I had started reading the book while my daughter was still looking through the other titles.  She eventually found a small book that she likes too.  It was just fantastic since my e-reader was malfunctioning and I had only brought one small book to read when I was visiting with my daughter in Berlin this time.

 

 

 

A House that is No More

Our first house was a solidly built brick bungalow that no longer exist.  In its place is a pretentious two storey house on a much too small lot.  During the 90’s a frantic building spree systematically demolished all the little bungalows with their individual charm in our neighbourhood.  They were replaced by big monotonous in-fills nicknamed “Monster Houses”.

I recalled my first impression of that house was a place of quiet contentment, a small house sitting on a slight incline.  The triangular roof had a gentle pitch and an overhang that formed the ceiling of a covered porch.  The shingles in a warm Burnt Sienna hue contrasted nicely with the white boxy pillars that were holding up the roof.  A white balustrade wrapped around the porch with an opening to a short flight of stairs on the left.  It was leading down to a narrow walkway that ended at the curb.  The staircase had four wide steps painted brown and two simple wooden hand rails painted white.  The large front window in leaded panes was framed in white and so was the screen door to its left.  The clear glass on the screen door was divided into three vertical sections by two skinny  white aluminum dividers.  The central panel was twice as wide as the side panel, this design combined with two white decorative shutters on either side gave an illusion of a much taller and wider doorway.  Through the window a white blind with a scallop edge and white tassels could be seen hanging part way down.  The crawlspace beneath the porch was secured with white lattice fencing.  White seemed to be the dominant colour here.  So much so that after we moved in when I placed some old bench seats in screaming red vinyl, inherited from the old restaurant and a few cylindrical containers sheathed in a Salmon pink fabric, gotten from a bankrupted clothing store to keep the outside toys on the porch it would not be overwhelming and gave a nice touch of colour to the frontage.

The bungalow was situated at a safe distance from the road.  A Spiraea hedge separated it from the neighbour to the east.  There was still some remnant from the annuals clinging to the thin soil under the hedge.  I recognized Sundrop was planted among them.  I could imagine a pretty sight in the summer time when delicate white blossoms covering a green hedge and bright yellow petals from the Sundrop hungrily soaking up the sun.  Next to the narrow walk which was barely wide enough for a person to walk through comfortably, was a small lawn littered with leaves fallen from the Maple tree growing on it.  A young Spruce was also growing on the north side of the Maple which we would later use as a living Christmas tree.  Remembering my children and I stringing up the popcorns and cranberries to form a long garland of puffy white flowers and ruby red beads to wind carefully around the tree, resting lightly on the short needles.  The fun watching birds finding the treats and the decoration gradually disappeared, leaving behind a wispy white cotton thread hanging loosely on the spruce.

A big Cedar shrub was planted right in front of the porch next to the driveway.  The Cedar with its flat, scaled leaves stood taller than the balustrade, it would provide relief from a fierce sun in the summer afternoon.  The paved driveway had serious cracks here and there, probably need an upgrade soon.  It was a mutual drive and lucky for our neighbours we did not own a car nor drive.  It extended to the back of the bungalow so when no car was parking in the driveway it formed a long path that began at the curb to the back of the houses, and a much wider area behind both houses was also paved and stopped at the garages.  It would be a safe space for the children to play here without worrying about the traffics.  They could have races, fun skipping and riding the tricycle or even whisking a radio-controlled toy car around.  The neighbour’s bungalow had no extension so there was enough space for a big DIY sandbox.  They were nice people and let everyone to play in it.

The garage attached to this property was dilapidated, a ruinous roof with curling or missing shingles.  The once white wooden planks that made up the walls of the structure  were splintered and warped at places, paint was peeling off and a green patina of moss appeared at the base.  The double doors were sagging with rusty hinges held on loosely that I had to fix multiple times to keep them able to open and shut albeit with much pulling and pushing.  At least it was of a good size for storing a lawn mower and other gardening tools.  But what a sorry sight!

*                                        *                                                 *

The ground at the back of the house was sloping slight into the garden and it was the white arbour at the entrance to the backyard that captured my heart.  A tall, mature Silver Maple stood next to a wooden fence that divided the paved area from a dirt path that was covered in flag stones.  Pale dry and curled leaves massed at the foot of the tree .  I could  imagine in summer time various plants would be trailing along the fences on both sides of the arch and the Rambling Rose sending out tendrils climbing up the trellis, draping over the arch from the top and climbing down the trellis on the other side.  An arbour of beautiful roses that would release a subtle perfume to the night air.  Past the arbour, trees and bushes scattered in different parts of the garden.  Cluster of fallow beds of herbs and annuals occupied strategic spots for maximum exposure to the sun.  Clumps of bedraggle invasive perennials were all over the garden competing with the weeds or ground covers for supremacy.  There was a patch of raspberry with old growths resembling barb-wires waiting for rebirth in the spring.  I looked forward to picking the juicy red fruits from the prickly canes in the summer.   Next to this was the remains of the Rhubarb—its once big leaves with a wavy edge were all shrivelled up, the fleshy stalk that tinged with red had dried up and turned black.  But when summer comes around again it would be a bonus for making a rhubarb pie.  A lonely Plum tree stood dispiritedly in a corner at the bottom of the garden—just wait, it would be covered in white blossoms comes spring and purple fruits in summer.

*                                           *                                                     *

The garden was a welcoming place for wild life, especially birds.   A stand of deciduous and evergreen trees was on the other side of the chain-link fence that separated us from the neighbour to the south.  It blocked the view of the neighbour’s house but could be a perfect habitat for a rockery.  The crows would make a great racket when they were returning to their home in the evening.  All sorts of birds would be coming and going at will. The Blue Jay’s loud call and flashes of blue would betray its presence.  Often Woodpeckers could be heard drumming on the tree tops and Robins seen strutting  on the ground.  A Northern Flicker in its snazzy coat could be spotted sitting confidently on a tree limb while a headstrong Nuthatch insisted on heading down the tree trunk.  A gaggle of Grackles would be showing off their iridescent coats, walking nonchalantly across the weedy lawn in their spindly legs.  Mourning doves could be heard cooing on a telephone wire nearby.  A flaming red male Northern Cardinal in our garden could be heard making nice calls to its partner, a female with muted apricot colour in another garden.  Flock of sparrows enjoyed chittering away in the bushes.  Occasionally a Red tail hawk land and caused an explosion of chirping and chattering from the smaller birds.  Other creatures, more nocturnal in nature would be leaving traces behind such as tracks or scats.  I once almost stepped on a harmless Garter snake when I came out of the backdoor.  Empty casings from the cicadas could be found lying around on the ground or being caught on some branches but almost impossible to see a live one when they were keening high up in the trees.

The most exciting encounter with wild life happened on the porch, the witnessing of a pair of House Finches raising a family.  Three quarter of the way up the pillar was a sort of a platform holding up a narrower post that connected to the ceiling of the covered porch.  It was here that the finches decided to build their nest.  Both the male bird, brightly coloured in orangey red and the female bird, drably coloured in brown would be flying in and out of the porch with scraps of string, twig or grass in their conical bills.  When the nest was ready the female finch would lay a clutch of eggs and sit to incubate them.  The male bird would be responsible to keep the mother bird fed and stood guard for the nest. Eventually loud chirping announced the arrival of the babies.  The nestlings with their open beaks demanded aggressively for food and the parent birds had to constantly looking for food to satisfy their needs.  The birds grew fast and the dangerous time came when they started to learn to fly.  Beside the parents the neighbour’s cat was watching the fledglings closely too. It was waiting patiently for a fledgling to falter and fell to the porch’s floor then it would ponce.  Some morning tiny down feathers could be seen floating in the air or caught among the furniture.  The cat must had been prowling in the night and had a successful hunt.  The pair of the House Finches would be returning to the same pillar every year to build a new nest to raise another family.  But in one of those years when they returned they would not find the familiar pillar to build their nest because the house was no more.

Birding in Downsview Park

I got off the Downsview Park Station and started walking, after about ten minutes I was at the formal entrance to the Downsview Park at Carl Hall Rd. and John Drury Dr.  I still had a long way to go to reach the lake at the southern end of the park because I had hoped to see some shorebirds today.  I soon noticed a bird making a slow and rhythmic movement with its wings in the sky so I trained my binoculars on it and saw that it was a Red-tailed hawk.  It was circling lazily over the meadow looking for preys. It bode well to see a hawk already because sometimes I would see nothing interesting even after hours of roaming.

I tried to stay on the Circuit Path, a long looping trail with many shortcuts that would lead directly to the lake but I kept hearing birds in the bushes.  After a short while I was tempted to step off the trail in pursuit of the birds but it was hard to see any bird among the dense foliage.  The mosquitoes were still out in force, I got a couple bites even after I had dabbed on some insect repellent.  Finally I was frustrated not to see a single bird and gave up, I returned to the path and determined not to be side-tracked again.

After twenty more minutes of brisk walking I had arrived at the perimeter of the lake.  I was on an elevated walkway, a board walk for pedestrians and I could see the whole nine acres of lake spread out below me.  It was quiet, the stone path and benches around the lake were deserted.  I could hear splashing from the few fountains—powerful jets scatter around the lake sending water high into the sky that rain back down like an umbrella of water, an addition of personality to a placid lake.  I scanned the lake with my binoculars and saw the ubiquitous Canada geese and Mallard ducks congregating in different pockets far and near. A few sea gulls were flying overhead and I noticed a white speck on the far side of the lake.  I suspected it was an egret and hurried over a bridge to move closer to the other side for a better look. Through my binoculars I could see the white bird standing tall among some other birds at a spit was in fact a Great egret with the yellow bill.  There was also a lone Double-crested cormorant mixed in with a gaggle of Canada geese.  I was disappointed not to see any shorebirds but decided to stay to watch the egret for awhile.

The sea gulls were flapping their wings energetically, flying back and forth across the lake, every now and then would swoop down and skim the surface looking for fish. They would do this several times before they could get a fish. In contrast, the egret was very laid back, it was standing stock still at the water’s edge waiting for the fish to come along then it would plunge its long bill into the water. I saw it bringing a fish out of the water still wiggling in its bill and swallowed it whole down its gullet.  Such a graceful looking bird that seemed not to have a care in the world earlier would suddenly transformed into a formidable predator.  I have had seen the Great egret many times but never got tired of looking at it—the lovely silhouette, the snowy white feathers, the slender neck in a slight S-curve and the long yellow bill.  This beautiful egret would spread its wings and took to the sky to explore different parts of the lake. Then it would land and remain motionless for awhile, silently surveying the water.  It would be high stepping in the shallows its long skinny legs, gently stretching out its neck searching for a good fishing spot before making a quick jab.  Just lovely!

Leaving the lake behind, I started walking eastwards where the land was rising gradually, when I got to the highest point I saw a seasonal pond in the depression of the land on the other side of the incline.  There were a few trees and small shrubs growing around a small body of water which looked scummy.  It was an habitat attractive to shorebirds so I stayed and looked around for them.  I moved towards a small tree and sat on a log at the base of it to take a drink of water from my water bottle.  I scanned the pond and its surroundings with my binoculars.  I almost missed it, at first I thought it was just a pile of rocks at the far end of the pond then I noticed some movements.  When I focused the binoculars on the spot I saw a single Yellow Legs and a couple of Sand pipers camouflaged by the rocks and the bits of vegetation.  The Yellow Legs was much bigger than the Sand pipers but still just around a Robin size and much skinnier, its body was mostly grey with speckles of white. The little birds were mostly brown and black and were moving around with their heads bobbing down for food in the mud.  They were too small for me to figure out what kind of Sand pipers to be and soon flew away.  The bigger bird remained and came out to the open so I could tell it is a Greater Yellow Legs with the proportionally longer bill. This would be the first time I saw a Yellow Legs so close, I could see it with my naked eyes and observed the markings on its body clearly with my binoculars.  It was the only bird at the pond and I enjoyed watching its interaction with the environment.  It would wander around the pond slowly, probing the mud with its long bill searching for food, sometimes it would go up to the higher ground and disappeared behind some vegetation and reappeared later. Then it would return to the water’s edge to forage for food and repeated the same actions over and over again, after awhile I got bored and left the pond.

I climbed up a small hill in the park called the Mount.  At the top I could see a second pond in the North West direction. I would like to explore that pond and descended the hill.  I followed a narrow track through some tall grasses and low bushes to reach the edge of pond.  This pond was bigger than the last one and had a huge stand of phragmites, an invasive water reeds with towering flumes of seed head, covering most of the pond.  It would be better if they were cattails, at least that would provide food for the wild life and help clean the water.  There was a lone female Mallard duck in the water and many swallows flying above.  There were at least two different species, the drab looking little Rough-winged swallow and the bigger, more colourful Barn swallow.  They were swooping  over the pond with open beaks vacuuming up the bugs that crossed their paths. I actually looked down at the throat of a swallow when one of them was flying in my direction with an open beak.  There was a lot of dragonflies and other nameless bugs buzzing around.  Quite a few King birds were waiting in the nearby trees to take their share.  I saw four or five of them perching on the branches of a dead tree, their postures stately and erect.  They would leave the tree to fly into some bushes to catch a morsel and then return to their perch, repeating the cycle over and over again as long as there was food. There was a tiny strip of land by the edge of the water and I was walking back and forth along the path observing birds. At one point I heard a splash that sounded like an animal had just slid into the water but when I looked in that direction I saw nothing. Later I heard a scream from a bird and the sound of struggle in the reeds at the far side of the pond. It was such a dense mass that I could not see anything that was  happening in it. At first I thought the Mallard duck had met a terrible end because I did not see it at the usual spot at one end of the pond. Then I was relieved to see it through an opening in the reeds at the opposite end of the pond. It was still alive and probably hiding among the reeds from whatever animal that had entered the water earlier. While walking on the path I had heard the call of a bird among the bushes behind me but it flew in and out too quickly for me to get a good look. Later a King bird flew over to a tree next to the path and flushed it out into the open briefly, it flew over to a small shrub right by the water and perched on a branch long enough for me to recognize it as a Water Thrush. By the time I was leaving the pond the same King bird was still perching on the same spot in the tree.

On my way home I decided to visit the Boake’s Grove and return to the lake one last time before taking the 41 bus on Keele St.  As I was walking towards the grove I thought I saw a Pine warbler flitting around in a young Spruce but  could not be certain because warblers look very different in the Fall plumage.  The same thing happened with the Common Yellow Throat I saw moving up and down the branches in a mature Maple tree, the colour was a total washout but there was still a hint of the distinctive eye mask of the small warbler. As a bonus I also saw a Savannah Sparrow singing in the clumps of tall grasses and cattails beneath the tree.

As I journeyed on I heard the birds calling out an alarm, I looked up and saw a Cooper’s hawk circling over the tree tops.  Further on I had more encounters with hawks. One was quite funny, a much smaller Cooper’s look-alike Sharp-Shinned was mobbed by a number of little birds and eventually got chased away.  As I entered the grove I must had startled a hawk, a dark shape dropped from a tree in front of me to just a few feet above the ground and shot through the grove like a projectile.  I was surprised it did not collide with any of the tree trunks in its flight, I followed in its wake but saw no sign of it.  There were many trails within the grove and I could hear the Cat bird mewing away, I followed the sound deeper and deeper into the bush but it remained elusive.  Finally I had to give up and left the grove to walk back to the lake.

When I returned to the lake there was a Great Blue heron  joining the Great egret walking leisurely along the water’s edge.  It was bigger than the egret and had a blue-gray coat and a dagger-like bill. It would stop moving and stand hunching over its long legs waiting patiently for fish. When it sensed something in the water it shot out its long bill to spear a fish under the water. It raised the fish out of the water and some how transferred the struggling fish to its open beak and swallowed it whole. Both the egret and heron were like beautiful statues when they were motionless but in an instant they would be transformed into ruthless fishers. 

It had been one of my better day birding in Downsview Park.