Saturday 26 November 2016

Bright sparks on grey days

Autumn in southwestern BC is often rainy - an understatement to those who live here. Last month saw only three dry days and broke rainy-day weather records set in the 1960s. This month appears to be bent on continuing the trend. In addition, the hours of light each day are short and getting shorter as the winter solstice is still weeks away. When thick rainclouds obscure the sun (which we know has to be up there somewhere for a few brief hours each day) it can feel like living in perpetual twilight. It is, in a word, gloomy.

I'm one of those people who loves the sun and I'm happiest mid-summer when bright hours start early and stretch well into the evening. When it's grey and wet for days on end I can also become, in a word, gloomy.

However, brightening my days are, as always, the creatures around me. I recently erected a suet feeder outside my studio and I immediately realized what I had been missing in the months since my move. Chickadees have naturally assumed ownership - both black-capped and chestnut-sided varieties. A couple of chestnut-sideds are my most regular visitors:

A chestnut sided chickadee samples my suet feeder that's
designed to discourage rodents.
Chestnut chickadee number two waits nearby. Rarely do both
feed at once. One is always keeping watch for danger.

Flocks of tiny, twittering bush-tits descend in their multitudes to feed and flutter briefly before carrying on in a rush of feathers to their next stop:

Bush-tit feeding frenzy.

There are also more solitary species: sparrows, downy woodpeckers and juncos:

A dark-eyed junco waits in the adjacent magnolia tree.

Most profoundly delightful for me are a duo of little ruby-crowned kinglets - a species of tiny songbird I haven't seen since I was a child:

A tiny ruby-crowned kinglet displays a hint of the crimson streak for
which it earned its name - a streak that transforms into a bright flash
of colour when the timing's right.

With the suet feeder success under my belt, I decided to see what other birds I could entice. On my second floor balcony just outside my kitchen I installed a hummingbird feeder. It might seem like an odd thing to do as winter approaches but I had been observing a number of Anna's hummingbirds in the area - a variety that often over-winters in this part of Canada - and was hopeful they might appreciate another feeding station in the neighbourhood.

No more than five minutes after hanging the feeder, the first sampler arrived:

The taste-test must have earned approval because since then there is always a hummer or two or three hanging about. My daily delight is observing them from my breakfast table. As an added bonus, I have come to realize that the tuft of moss revealed when the leaves fell from an adjacent maple tree isn't just a tuft of moss. It's a tiny nest!

Thankfully the dreary days of raincoats, and rubber boots, and dog towels piled by the door have been made easier to bear by tiny feathered sparks of energy just outside the windows. Who could fail to be cheered by the comings and goings of these small, lively creatures?

Housecat Hugo is certainly enjoying the show.

His hours of entertainment are even extended into the evening, thanks to nature programs on public television.

How many more days till spring?

Thursday 27 October 2016

Where's Archie?

Since Hugo posted about his vacation a while ago, several of my readers have cautiously enquired as to the whereabouts of Archie (aka The cat who could fly). They've expressed concern that some cat-astrophe had befallen my gentle grey giant.

A portrait of Archie I completed a few years ago.

Let me reassure you that Archie is fine. In fact, Archie is more than fine - he's  tremendous! He's no longer at the bottom of the canine/feline pecking order around here and is now king of his own castle with three doting human slaves. Archie basically packed his little kitty-cat bags and moved out!

Well... it didn't exactly happen quite that way. A few months ago when I was in the throes of selling my house, the critters (Lily, Hugo and Archie) and I moved in with some friends to ensure my house remained pristine and pet-hair-free while it was being shown to potential buyers. My friends had recently lost their own two cats - geriatric brothers - to age related illnesses that struck them down within weeks of one another. Bereft and for the first time cat-less, they welcomed us into their home even if it did mean making room for a lively cocker spaniel in addition to me and the two felines.

To make a long story short, a love story developed between them and Archie. As our stay drew to a close, they cautiously asked if I'd consider letting them give him a permanent home. I needed a bit of time to mull it over - after all, when an animal joins my family, it's for life - so I agreed to a temporary trial period. However, I knew in my heart Archie was not thriving with me. Despite my best efforts at behaviour management, his reserved, cautious nature and skittishness meant he was often ill at ease as the boisterous puppy and kitten duo of Lily and Hugo grew into rambunctious young adults. This situation would not improve in the new, much smaller home that we would be moving to.

A playful wrestling match between Lily and Hugo

Lily always teased Archie unmercifully. As for Hugo... well... here's a picture:

So ultimately I realized the opportunity for a loving new home would be in Archie's best interests. My friends would have a cat in their lives once again, and Archie would be the solo centre of attention. Happily for me, I'd be able to visit regularly.

It didn't take long to see that Archie was thrilled with the arrangement. Although I suspect he initially missed his little buddy Hugo (and I know Hugo missed him), time passed and we all adapted.

HRH Archie on his new throne.

So now dear Archie permanently resides with my friends. He rules his new kingdom with a gentle paw, accepting (and now expecting) daily brushings, dining on gourmet food that can be nibbled at leisure rather than gobbled lest some other animal claim it, and accepting frequent caresses from his humans. He's even come out of his shell and become much more social, just as he was as a younger cat. I visit regularly and he always appears glad to see me although not so much his former nemesis, my side-kick Lily.

He has new places to nap:

And fun things to occupy his time:

And can relax completely, blissfully without fear of being leapt on by an exuberant young housemate!

He's even made a new friend:

And as for life at home, Lily and Hugo appear to be quite content with one another's company.

May we all live happily ever after.

Monday 29 August 2016

Hugo's holiday

Written by Hugo the Cat

I knew what was happening. The packing, the loading, the busy energy that are tell-tale signs that my human Deb and that darned dog Lily would be leaving. Once again I'd be  home alone. From my spot on the stairs I watched and waited for them to go and leave me behind with no fun to be had except brief visits from my other human friends to break the monotony. How come Lily always gets to go and I don't? Not fair!

Imagine my surprise when Deb leaned down and said "Hugo, it's time for you to come to The Cottage with us. I think you'll like it!" And before I knew what was happening I was stuffed in that awful box called a Cat Carrier and then into the car. I was NOT amused.


It felt like we were in the car for a really long time, and for much of that the entire car was inside a huge metal thing that made horrible noises and smelled even worse. But eventually we arrived. We were at that fabled place that Lily always said was her absolute favourite - with big trees full of twittering birds, and a field of tall grass and wildflowers, and where she gets to play ball all day and go for walks to a wet place called The Beach (that part sounds unpleasant to me). We were at The Cottage.

Deb was right. I DID like it. Some of our stuff was there, like the mat I used to sleep on in front of the fireplace in our old house.

There were great places to sleep: a bed just like at home...

... and a sofa-thing with a really nice picture hanging over it. For some reason Deb laughed when she saw me lying below it.

And she laughed even harder when she took this picture of me lying on the old throw that covers another sofa-thing. Deb said it's an heirloom but I don't know what that means. I simply thought it made a nice soft place for a nap. Don't know what was so funny about that.

Because The Cottage is smaller than our regular house and we were On Holiday, Deb said the rules could be overlooked. I was allowed to climb around and hang out anywhere I liked, even on tables and kitchen counters. I get in trouble for that at home.

There were lots of crawly things to chase - spiders and moths and ants and you name it. I particularly enjoyed energetic games of Chase the Bug around 4 o'clock each morning, just before dawn. For some reason Deb didn't seem happy about that. Silly Lily didn't even wake up. All she cares about is chasing her stupid ball all day and to do that she needs her rest.

But what I really wanted to do was go outside. I watched Deb and Lily out in the yard and wondered why I couldn't be with them. Deb says that 200-million birds are killed by cats every year in Canada, and there's no way I'm going to make that number 200-million-and-one. She also says that I'll live a longer, healthier life if I stay indoors. I can understand these are good reasons and figured I had just better be happy chasing those spiders and moths.

Then a surprising thing happened. Deb brought out a stringy gizmo that she called a harness. When she put it on me if felt kinda weird but wearing it meant I could go outside! I had trouble getting the hang of it and I was pretty nervous, but it was fun in a scary sort of way. Deb said it was impossible to take my picture and hang onto the leash so she didn't get a photograph of me but I know I looked great. The yellow colour of the harness brought out my eyes.

After that we tried something else: Deb put me in Lily's big crate so I could sit in it out on the front porch. Now that was really fun! I could smell the air and hang out with Deb and Lily, and I felt safe. I could see lots of birds all around in the trees. After that, every day around 5 o'clock I'd climb in the crate and wait for Deb to take me outside. It became our routine.

Lily was right about The Cottage being a great place. Then one day Deb said something about good things coming to an end and I had to get back into the cat carrier, and we all got back into the car, and into the big stinky metal thing that I have learned is called a ferry, and we came back home.

I like home but I can't wait for our next trip to The Cottage. Lily feels just the same.

Saturday 6 August 2016

Not-so-silent Spring

I'm gradually becoming accustomed to my new home and one of the things I continue to be thrilled about is the abundance of birds. Protected greenbelts to the north and south feature big trees, trickling water, wild plants producing seeds and berries, lots of underbrush, and generally just plain good habitat for feathered creatures. A healthy population of wild rabbits provides sustenance for the barred owls whose hooting calls have lulled me to sleep most nights. I'm grateful each day for all these creatures and their sounds: the robust morning arias of robins, the daily cheerful twitterings of sparrows, chickadees, waxwings, towhees and all the other songbirds, and then, at dusk, the haunting serenade of the owls.

The same goes for my rustic little place on Mayne Island where I can simply sit among the trees and be engulfed by the sounds of nature - frog choruses in the spring, buzzing insects in summer, and always birds: the repetitive peep-peep-peeping of nuthatches, the chatter of woodpeckers, the trill of wrens, and the amazing vocabulary of the ravens whose complex conversations drift down from the treetops. And yes, there are owls there too. The sounds of these wild creatures simply soothes my soul.

I would not have known about the rambunctious wren family that took up residence in one of my Mayne Island bird houses if not for the exuberant chatter of the youngsters each time a parent visited with a morsel of food.

Nor would I have known that there was yet another family of juncos in the nest over the cottage's patio door if not for the soft trill of young birds - barely audible but distinctive - marking the second or perhaps third brood to be raised there since the nest first appeared in March. And no, I haven't used that door in months lest I disturb the family living above it. A small sacrifice on my part.

The donated birdbath in front of the cottage has provided a bathing and drinking place, attracting all sorts of little birds as each day's light begins to wane. They flit down from the trees to take a few sips or splash about, providing me with entertainment I can observe from my doorstep.

I'm in love with it all, not to mention artistically inspired!

Golden-crowned kinglet (coloured pencil)

Dark-eyed junco (coloured pencil)

American robin (coloured pencil)

But back on the mainland in my new home I do not take the chorus of birdsong for granted. The development that's expanding in this corner of the Fraser Valley is monumental. While efforts are being made to preserve trees and set aside bits of wild space, the landscape is being dramatically transformed from small, semi-rural acreages to an urban jigsaw puzzle of dense housing.

I find myself wondering if the owls will continue to find a place to live and hunt here, and how long I can look forward to sharing the woods with them. I found a beautiful feather just today. I'm concerned about the barnswallows who swoop and feed on flying insects in a nearby field rimmed with bulldozers and digging machines awaiting their orders. I fear the family of red-tailed hawks who have reared at least one youngster in the tall trees adjacent to my townhome may soon loose their lofty nest as that plot of land is transformed into a business complex. The birds will move on but the question becomes increasingly... where will they go?

Today I came across a startling sound-bite on the Internet: a one minute audio clip
that documents sounds in a California forest over a period of 10 years, 2005-2015. I don't think anyone could listen to this and not be moved. Click here to hear it for yourself and find out more about its author.

For more than 50 years, scientists have been warning about the potential of a "silent spring" - a spring without birdsong. Bird populations are dropping dramatically world-wide due to pesticides, habitat loss and a myriad of other factors. It appears that in California that terrible silent season already arrived.

I don't want this post to be depressing. Judging by the volume and complexity of the birdsong in my two neighbourhoods there's plenty of hope. However, if the woods of Sugarloaf State Park can transform from a cacophony of sound to virtual silence in the span of just a few short years, there is a need for mindfulness. We can't take our feathered co-inhabitants of this planet for granted and, like the proverbial canaries in coal mines, their silence could be the precursor of worse things to come for all of us.

What we can do? I think it starts with becoming aware and pro-active. There are a number of websites that offer helpful ways we, as individuals, can help birds. Among my favourites are Bird Studies Canada, the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy, and there are many others. If we each take their suggestions to heart and put them into practice, what might seem like small individual efforts become, as a collective, a movement that could help ensure our wild spaces and our neighbourhoods continue to be enriched by the sound of birdsong.

I think it's worth noting that in Canada the number one killer of songbirds is our own army of pet cats who are allowed to roam free (according to Environment Canada 200 million birds are killed by cats each year). Just by keeping our cats indoors, if not full time then at least during the most sensitive times, a staggering number of birds could be saved.

Window Cat (hand painted silk)

As I write this, a stunning yellow goldfinch has just streaked past my window. I hope that's a sight I will be able to enjoy for many seasons yet to come.

Goldfinch (hand painted silk)

Sunday 3 July 2016

Settling in

With my moving date now a couple of weeks behind me followed by a period of unpacking that I can only describe as "epic" (and still ongoing), I'm settling in to my new home. Life in a more compact space in a more urban setting is different and there will always be things about my previous home and neighbourhood that I will miss - my garden, my neighbours, my favourite walks with Lily, my roomy studio. However there are a lot of pluses about this new life, and there is one in particular that is an absolute delight.

Only steps from our doorstep Lily and I have discovered a pathway into glorious green-belt of big trees.

 It's alive with birds and wildflowers and bunnies.

There is a trickling stream and a secluded pond.

There are winding trails to explore, and even though we're just a stone's throw from the balconies and patios of adjacent homes it feels like we're in a forest which, in fact, we are - an urban forest.

It's a place where a small black dog can chase a ball.

Suspended in a tree, reminiscent of George Sawchuck, a skeletal plane drifts in the breeze.

A snug birdhouse offers refuge and ample berries provide food for feathered creatures.


To date I have seen goldfinches, various sparrows, flickers, hummingbirds, loads of robins who sing enthusiastically, chickadees, towhees, grosbeaks, juncos, bushtits, waxwings and other songbirds. I have heard tapping and observed the work of what looks like that of a pileated woodpecker.

And at night, to my profound delight, I have been serenaded by the voices of barred owls. When I first heard them I could hardly believe my ears. It felt like I was being welcomed home - a good omen for the life I will make in this new space.

It feels like a gift to have found this place - a compact, modern abode with a separate studio space (more unpacking!), a small yard for Lily, and a forest on our doorstep.

And housecat Hugo has also found new ways to entertain himself.

For now, the unpacking continues. We are settling in.