Sandhill Cranes Show off Baby

They’re back.  The pair of sandhill cranes that nested in my wetland last year and drew birders with their chick, have done it again this year. Since parents birds get very cagey, there have been only glimpses of the new little crane far back in the trees. 

Mama and chick pause to ponder the new feathers of a youngster growing up as fast as it can.

Now, however, they are ready to parade the baby out in the pasture where there seem to be plenty of treats to grub for in the grass. They must have fed their baby prodigiously because it has shot up from a fuzzy little yellow thing to a tall adolescent starting to get feathers.  And it is only June.

I don’t know what happened to last year’s baby because the cranes appeared late last fall without it.  Sandhill crane babies hang about with parents for almost a year so I fear that youngster came to grief.  Since sandhills are ground dwellers, every sort of predator, from ravens and gulls to coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, owls and eagles do their best to make a meal of the young. Luckily, I don’t have any alligators.

Now that this year’s baby is getting so big, its parents have calmed their nerves. They forage unconcerned beside the herd of cattle and walk along the fence by the road paying little attention to traffic–unless a vehicle slows.

I’m looking forward to lots more visits. Perhaps I’ll even manage to get a picture that isn’t fuzzy because it’s from the end of my zoom range. That would be up close and friendly.  Ha!


Anybody Remember Arbour Day?

The celebration of Arbour Day has likely long vanished from overcrowded modern curricula, but for us, at the village two room school, it brought much excitement. Arbour Day happened early in May. It meant a school day like no other.

No lessons  inside, for the outdoors was our realm.  The first half of the day was spent in the school yard, which included our makeshift baseball diamond, garter snake pit and wild grape tangle, cleaning up and tidying. It meant extracting candy wrappers from the long grass, sweeping the front and back steps and getting the old dead leaves out of the cellarway.

Then, at noon, the real fun began. Everyone piled into the teacher’s car and perhaps a farm truck and off we drove, in highs spirits, to someone’s woods where we tumbled out to devour the picnic lunches in our lunch pails.  Bologna sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper, home made cookies (never the shame of store bought), hunks of cheese, a jam tart or even a piece of Johnny cake. Then we were turned loose.

Arbour Day, according to our friend, Wikipedia, was started during the Napoleonic Wars by a Spaniard who thought a day of festival would induce folks to plant trees for the good of their health and perhaps distract them from the invading armies. It must have been a roaring good festival for the idea caught on.  Arbour Day got imported to nearly fifty countries around the world, including Canada, for the purpose of planting trees and appreciating nature and inducing young folks to take an interest in the tidiness of their school grounds.

Delicate wild violets hid themselves among the shadows on the forest floor.

Our little band totally missed the tree planting part, probably because the neighourhood was already overrun with trees.  Instead, we ran free through the underbrush in search of bird’s nests and wildflowers. As country kids, we were already connoisseurs of the earliest bloomers.  It was somewhat of a contest to see who could spot the first trillium, the first wild violets,  as they meant spring and balmy weather was trying to arrive. Yellow adder tongues with their spotted leaves were prize finds.  Bloodroot which bled  delightfully gruesome red sap when plucked, white Mayflowers, Jack in the pulpits, all cried out new growth and coming summer fun.

We were ordered not to pick the wildflowers but, of course, we all came back with a fistful which usually drooped so badly so fast we guiltily abandoned them before loading up for home. We did, usually, refrain from picking trilliums after the grim warning that picking would kill them for the leaves came with the flower, leaving the plant to starve and die.

Flushed with sunshine and fresh air, our hair full of twigs, our shoes muddy, our hands trying to conceal rips in our clothes from the brush, we headed merrily home, wishing every day could be Arbour Day.

I still wish that. In good weather anyway. And think being dropped in the woods for a bracing spring afternoon would do a lot of folks a lot more good than they might possibly imagine from the house bound clutches of their couch.


Acres of Dandelions, Acres of Gold. Is it Finally Spring?

Wind, cold, damp and even sleet and ice made spring seem just a rumour.  Brown grass, bare trees,  and lots of mud.  The only things growing were the potholes.

Yellow glory underfoot. You gotta respect the dandelion.

Then a few days of sunshine, temperatures that didn’t require a coat and, presto, you look out one morning and realize, somewhat stunned, that the world has turned green.

Green and yellow. Almost before blades of grass can rise, the dandelions rush to bloom.  Bloom in every possible place as fast as they can, as though aware their only chance for reproduction is to beat the arrival of the lawn mowers and the weed exterminators.

Like most of us here, dandelions are immigrants, likely arriving with the first sack of grain, or stuck to the boots of Samuel de Champlain. They’ve adapted so well the whole continent is their playground. And defied every attempt to put them down. Dandelions are the earliest of spring flowers, even beating out forsythia and lilacs.  They provide swathes of enthusiastic yellow on our reviving lawns and sweeps of gold out in the pastures. They provide the first food for famished bees coming out of hibernation. They can fill our salad bowls with nutrient laden greens.

Their name is from the French dent-de-lion or tooth of the lion as their jagged leaves suggest. The French also call them pis-en-lit or wet the bed, a testament of the plant’s use as a diuretic.

Quick to bloom, quick to seed. Ha ha, beat the lawn mower once again.

I feel bad cutting down their eager yellow heads but the grass must be cut before it’s too thick for the mower.  I am angrily pursued by the bumblebee that guards bee the nest under my stairs.  It thinks I’m ruining the buffet after a long lean winter and deserve the business end of a stinger. If I were urban, guilt would set in.  Here, I point to the acres of pasture carpeted in yellow and tell the bee to go feast elsewhere.   Yellow dinners await as far as the eye can see.

Ha ha, bring on the lawn mower. It only helps us to fly to new homes.

Bright blooms swiftly become ghost globes of dandelion seeds, each with its own little parachute, each waiting to sail on the wind to some new home.  They’ve beaten the cattle who will soon be along to munch and trample. They will blithely take any hostility now as they make way for the main act when it comes to weeds, the lawless, unkillable thistles which will soon be four feet high and snatching as much territory as they can, fierce spines keeping the cattle away.

How joyfully I’d trade no thistles for an endless dandelion season.




Beginning of the End for the Grand Old Barn?

The barn has stood since the 1860s, built of massive axe hewn beams pinned together with big wooden spikes. Built before the era of concrete foundations, it sits on large rocks hauled in from the fields.  It was probably built by one Patrick Farrell who owned the land way back when the land was worked with a team and single plow.

The beams would have been carefully chosen, carefully hewn and carefully seasoned so as not to warp after the barn was up.  There would have been a barn raising since the heavy beams, fitted in sections while still on the ground, needed a crew of neighbours to raise and daring skywalkers, without safety kit of any kind, to fasten the frame together after it rose  high in the air.  The rafters are long poles stripped of bark, the cladding barn boards hammered directly onto the beams.

The barn still in good shape but empty of all life and use.

Afterward, there would have been a dance and a whole lot of food and probably swigs of the harder stuff in the dimmer corners. 

For over 15o years the barn has held horses, cattle, pigs and every variety of farm animal. Loads of hay for winter fodder, drawn by sweating teams ,came through its central bay, lifted into the vast twin mows by a hay hook and tackle that still runs on its track high under the roof ridge. It sports a shell hole where a former owner blasted a marauding skunk a century ago.

The huge empty hay mow once crammed to the rafters with fragrant hay.

The barn has stood up to all the fierce County winds and faced down Hurricane Hazel. But the wind last week, up to 120k, took one corner of its roof and peeled it gapingly back.  Unused for at least forty years now, the barn has not found a place in modern life.  It’s mows are empty, milking stations full of cobwebs, cavernous lower regions housing only barn swallows for life.

Now the question is to fix the roof or let the barn join the ranks of others of its kind which can been seen about rural roads, roofless, open sided, sinking to the ground. These old barns have fallen out of use except to provide barnboard for fashionable city bars or faux rustic home decor.  They cost too much keep up.  With no bales of hay and livestock filling them, they seem to give up and deteriorate all the faster. 

Left to the weather, this once splendid barn dies a lingering death in a modern world where it has no place.

My barn once had three others like it within sight, all now long vanished. It is the last for miles on my road. Shall I finally let mine join them? The wind has made the first tear in its weakening fabric. Without action, the storms will soon start picking off the weathered boards and rust eat at the two steel cables preventing the central beams from bowing apart. Its century and a half of faithful duty make a silent reproach as I weight its fate and feel my pocketbook clenching tight.

Thrift or sentiment, which will win? Even I can’t tell.

Canada, the Kentucky Derby and My Tiny Leap into Video

With the Kentucky Derby coming up, I’m joining fellow author, Muriel Lennox, in bragging about the genetic supercharge Canada has provided to the greatest thoroughbreds of the racing world. 

Ms. Lennox has unraveled a long hidden saga which can’t help but swell Canadian chests. The luck, gambles, inspiration and, too often, sheer skullduggery of racing history make her books read like thrillers.

My part is all this is my first venture into video, a tiny book trailer I put together for Muriel’s latest, Rivers of Gold. You can check it out here:

Now that I know it can be done, and was such fun, there will be more in the future, I’m sure.  Meanwhile, don’t miss the Kentucky Derby on May fifth.  No matter what horse you pick, it will carry Canadian fire in its veins.

And for a rollicking gallop through racing’s many astonishing, little known tales, please check out books by Muriel Lennox at:

Pure love of horses informs them all.

Farm Machines of Yesteryear. Stubborn Bones Have Earned Their Rest.

Recently a bunch of us went for  hike through the back lanes of a farm at the height of maple sugar season. While the gleaming modern tractor sat at the ready, the sides of the lanes were strewn with abandoned farm machinery of a previous era.

Studded iron wheels. Safety unheard of as the seat teetered above all the moving works.

Built of sturdy iron, these machines may slump in the weeds, but they rust very slowly and look as though, with a little effort and repair, they could be pulled from under their layers of dead grasses and put to work again. The shaft to hook up a team of horses is still there. The hard seat for the driver who now only had to handle the team but also the stiff levers lifting and lowering the cutting heads, blades and whatever else needed moving. Strictly muscle power.  No hydraulics here.


Old horse drawn hay mower with long cutting arm erect and ready.

From before the era of springs and rubber tires, these old workers display their teeth-jolting iron wheels that squealed, clattered and jounced on every rock and stone.

Many still have dabs of paint.  A few can conjure living memory. But the teams of horses are long gone.  However, they are testaments to agricultural ingenuity with mostly began in the 19th century. Commerce was booming, towns and cities grew, railroads threaded the land, science was making leaps and bound. 

A planter still with drum for fertilizer and boxes for seedling plants.

Yet, in agriculture, farmers complained of tools from the time of the pharaohs, the scythe, the flail, the pitchfork, back breaking stoop labour. Inventors turned their attention and thought surely they do better than that. The mechanical mower appeared, the binder, the corn planter, the cultivator, the thresher with its fire breathing steam engine to drive it.

So, the hulks lying in the long grass mark steps to freedom for farmers and the efficiency that feeds us all.  There was a time when only 5% of the population was urban.  The rest were needed to dig and harvest, hoe and sweat and toil to get our food. 

Sleeping underneath an enfolding pine.

Today the percentage is the other way round.  We can sit in our comfy desk chairs because now huge tractors till the fields, enfolding the farmer in an air conditioned cab complete with entertainment, touch screen displays, instant communication with both people and attached machinery,  GPS, and even adjustable auto guidance, eliminating the need to steer. 

Self driving tractors are close on the horizon, eliminating the need to step into the field at all. One farmer, in comfort, can do the work of crowds of our ancestors.

Modern combine harvests wheat, replacing the scythe and the flail. If you live in a city now and get your food, without toil, from the supermarket, it’s thanks to this machine and its kin.

So I say, let the iron hulks rust in peace.  As steps along the way, they’ve done their job, earned their rest. And I can loll in my spine caressing ergonomic chair, thankful there is no acre of weeds in the corn that I am expected to hoe.

First Brave Caterpillar. In February!

February caterpillar marching on the road.

Quick update on arriving spring.  It’s February 22 and I’m doing my hike down the road.  Until I spot a tiny creature recklessly heading onto the pavement and certain squashing.  To my amazement, it was a caterpillar marching where only days ago the worst snow of the year kept us all holed up in our houses.

The same road only a week before.

I’m not surprised by robins any more as they have figured out how to stay around all winter, as do many Canada geese.  However, the big flocks of geese appeared flying over on the same day as the caterpillar.  And the day after, the indestructible pair of swans showed up again to stake out their  housekeeping domain even though the ice is still eight inches thick on the pond.

Swan pair finally driven out by the first big freeze last year. Now they’re back on the ice to start all over again. they get a medal for determination.

So where did the caterpillar come from?  How did it survived the bitter cold only a week or so before and emerge fat and sassy to trundle onto the pavement? A mystery of nature to me.

I did move it off the road and send it off in the other direction. The caterpillar is  either suicidal to come out so soon from wherever it was hiding  or a sure sign that life is back. 

I’ll pick the latter.




Winter’s Dying. Last Days of Ice and White.


It’s only the middle of February but the forecast is rain during two days of 11C  and the next two weeks will have every day above freezing. I’d say that’s it for the snow and ice.  Last weekend we had days of snow and I was quite handily snowed in.  A heap of shoveling to breach the snowplow drift at the road and my all wheel drive finally got me out and off to town.

Ash trees killed by beavers gnawing at their trunks. Why didn’t they finish the job and use the wood? Wasteful!

For pictures, the landscape is particularly colourless; white, gray, brown, black.  So it was time for a farewell hike over the frozen beaver pond and a walk to the beaver lodge which will be unreachable again until next year’s freeze. The beavers are secure in their iron hard fortress walls which no hungry wolf or coyote can penetrate no matter how furiously they dig. 

The beavers settled on the edge of the now long flooded over farm pond.  This was smart planning for they use the pond to store their winter fodder of twigs and branches, many of which stick out above the ice. A walk on the ice reveals how many young ash trees the beavers have taken down.  There are pointed stumps everywhere. They have also  killed other large trees by gnawing at their bolls. An annoying waste if they are not going to fell the trees  and use them.  They say beavers move on when nearby resources are used up. These beavers have been gnawing for years with nary a sign of shifting their butts elsewhere.

Pond ice soon to melt. Perfect natural skating surface. What fun we had here as kids.

In winter, it is odd to see the pond still and silent, bereft of the teeming bird life that fills it in the summer. The frogs and turtles are settled at the bottom. No dragonflies, no attacking mosquitoes. Only dead reeds and flattened swale. I looked for the swan’s nest but could not find it.  However, life goes on.  The snow is full of deer tracks and coyote tracks and the rabbits have been pretty active too, perhaps dodging the coyotes. Field mice hide in tunnels  under the bushes. The trees at the edge sport squirrels now gamboling about with romance on their minds

Did I have a meteor strike. Time to take back the axe and see.

There’s even a puzzle, a large circle of brown ice radiating from a frozen over hole in the centre. Large radiating cracks make me think of impact.  A visitor from the sky?  Perhaps I’ll take my axe back and see if I can dig up a meteorite before the big thaw swamps it all.

I wait for the red winged blackbirds and won’t be surprised to see the swan pair standing on the last of the ice any day now, eager to set up house again and get this year’s family started.




The Tree Everybody Knows. At Least on Our Road.

From my earliest memory, the tree has always been there. Along the road home. Though there are trees, trees, trees everywhere, this one has always stood out.  Winter and summer, covered with snow or enduring yet another parching summer drought, the tree  watches by the road, an ever welcome sign that I am nearing home.

The tree stands out because, among the hordes of red cedars growing up around its feet, it is a pine.

The county once had great stands of pine–until the lumbermen arrived.  The tallest and best were in high demand as ships’ masts for the royal navy.  We still have a Royal Road which was once the trail along which the massive pines were hauled to the water’s edge, destined to help sail ponderous vessels into battle.

So pines, once abundant, are now  a rarity in my neighbourhood. This is the only one I’ve noticed in the wild by my road.

Our neighourhood pine, quietly distinct against the sky.

Our pine is not particularly large though it must be at least  hundred years old.  Clutching for life in our thin, shaley soil does not make for towering growth. However, it is tall enough to stand above its neighbours and is immediately noticeable because of its bent top and its lean from withstanding our vigorous westerly winds.  Instead of growing straight, it swoops sideways probably from some accident as a sapling it carries to the end of its days. How the twig is bent, as they say.

As I child, I watched for it out the window of our old Ford truck.  Back then, it stood in what was known as Roy’s pasture where Roy’s cattle spent their summers grazing.  The land has been sold long since and now the red cedars are gobbling up all the open spaces where the Herefords used to roam.

Nevertheless, the pine still stands above them, serene in its field, witness to model T’s and SUVs, wartime bombing practice, generations of cows and calves dozing in its shade, packs of spandex clad modern cyclists, and all our local regulars going to and from their work each day.

I used to think it was just me who thought of this tree as an old friend. But probably not.  I’d love to know how many others also believe they are the only ones who give this special sentinel  a wave and a nod as they go by.  Here’s hoping it lasts another hundred years. Long may the chain saw stay away.


Swans in Winter, A Matter of Survival

Mute swans are an invasive species, descended from a few birds introduced in the 1800s as park and estate ornaments.  They have multiplied to the point of being considered a pest for their aggressiveness in driving off native species and their enormous appetites so hard on our water plants.  A swan can put away as much as eight pounds of vegetation, as well as frogs, etc. in a day. Not long ago, I looked out to see the entire marsh channel filled with them, graceful white creatures floating so delicately.  There must have been hundreds.  Next time I looked, they were gone, having swiftly cleaned up the handy food supply, I suppose.

Swans caught in their every shrinking patch of open water.

My pair of swans, which return to my wetland yearly to raise a family, nearly expired of drought last year.  This year they hatched seven fluffy babies and raised at least six of them to flying age. I assumed they had gone off to join the crowd for the winter.  So imagine my surprise to look out and see three of them still floating in a tiny patch of open water with ice closing in all around.

After slipping back to take some pics, I thought the wings of two of them looked odd.  That night, the temperature dropped to -20C, freezing the pond solid. The swans disappeared, quite sensibly I thought, gone to find a more congenial spot. However, I soon received an email from our local wildlife rescuer saying that he had chased two of them along the road about a mile away because they seemed to have injured wings and couldn’t fly.  He failed to catch them because they were otherwise healthy and strong and too fast on their big webbed feet. They vanished into brush far out of reach.

Rescuers, net in hand, tramp off into the cedars to find the swan in distress.

I follow the advice of our locally famous naturalist and stay out of wildlife dramas.  Not so the rescuers. Our local volunteer is afire for helping the sick, injured or threatened, the same fellow who, in the summer, can produce an instant lecture on the desperate importance of saving turtles from the road.  He convinced the police to keep and eye out.  They informed him that they spotted a swan near the village. That was the extent of their aid.  Our rescuer was outraged that neither the police, the fire department or the apparently idle road crew in the road maintenance terminal would help to corral the bird. He resorted to me for help and stopped a county truck on the road, convincing the two women workers inside to join the rescue party. 

Of course we made so much noise crashing through the cedars that the swan ran off.  A meandering search ensued with me wondering why we didn’t just follow the webbed tracks in the snow.  Yet all was not lost.  An intrepid young man from town arrived, their go to expert for remote rescues and kayak heroics.  I got sent home.

Young swan rescued from starvation during the severe drought last summer.

Later, I found out this new tracker did not give up until they actually captured the bird which will now winter at the animal rescue haven.  Other swans also arrived there.  One was taken in by  woman who picked it up at the roadside where it had been hit by a car.  It, unfortunately, did not survive.  Another, struck on the big bridge over the bay, ran out onto the bay ice which was far to thinly frozen for people to step on. So, it stood about, occasionally splashing in a wet puddle, for all to see driving by. The current deep freeze may have by now encouraged someone to risk their neck to bring it in. 

Catching a large, angry swan, injured or not, is no mean feat. They can easily break an arm and stab viciously with their bills.  So kudos to all those intrepid souls who undertake the hardest rescues.  They help make sure my pond has swans again in the spring.