Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The ultimate window bird scarer

I find this to be the very best way to keep birds from flying into the windows. A CD of DVD hung on a piece of thread moves with the slightest air disturbance. In fact it is virtually never still. Its hologram side casts an ever-changing rainbow of colours. Even the non-hologram side and the edges create flashes, all of which keep birds away.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Just 12 years left to save ourselves

The latest alarm from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that all hell is going to break loose by the year 2030 if the world doesn't reduce its carbon emissions by 45%. That is predicted to be the time when we will have raised the average world temperature by 1.5 C from burning fossil fuels.
Is it even possible to meet the 45% reduction target? Yes, say these experts, if we take drastic action starting right now. We need a major conversion to electric vehicles, tremendous expansion of mass transit systems, carbon capture and sequestration for the cement and waste disposal industries, and a reversal of deforestation to make room for agriculture.
In other words, we need to stop using carbon fuels and start planting trees and crops to act as carbon sinks pronto.
Is this going to happen?
Well, right now in the U.S. we still have rapturous crowds dancing around the Coal President chanting "Lock her up! Lock her up!" In Ontario we just elected a premier whose first acts were to destroy every climate change initiative in exchange for "Buck-a-Beer!"
In other words, no, it's not going to happen. Human beings are incapable of making decisions other than those that bring them immediate gratification. Want to get elected? Promise to lower the price of gasoline.
Even if we did hold the warming to 1.5 C there will still be catastrophic changes ahead: sea level rise, extinction of many species including most of the fish in the oceans, incredible hurricanes, rainfalls that wipe out communities, crop failures, billions of refugees. But humans could still survive for the hundreds of years it will take for the carbon to come back out of the atmosphere.
The prognosis for reaching 2 C is far more dire. That is when feedback mechanisms will start clicking into place. We could end up with a runaway atmosphere like Venus which is 860 F (460 C).
There likely won't be anyone around to see that happen. We will have long since suffocated from lack of oxygen. 80 per cent of the oxygen we breathe comes from phytoplankton in the oceans. Already we have killed 40 per cent of the world's phytoplankton just from the 1+degrees C we have heated the atmosphere.
There is no time left. We either do the right thing and save life on the planet or we dance around the coal fire chanting "Lock her up!" while we toss back "Buck-a-beers."

Friday, September 14, 2018

Hawks attack jays which just don't care

Call it a case of unintended consequences. I had been feeding the birds all summer and had attracted large groups of blue jays and gold finches especially when a few days ago a couple of Sharpshinned hawks showed up. They started attacking the bluejays which, to my amazement, barely seem to care.
Now there are four or more hawks joining in the hunt. They dive bomb the feeder and obviously want the bluejays to fly. Some always do and the nimble hawks pursue them right through the limbs of the trees nearby. Other jays just refuse to take wing.
The jays will return to the birdfeeder immediately after each attack which come every five or six seconds from one or more of the hawks. Incredibly the bluejays will land in the feeder even when the hawks are perched on limbs only 10-15 feet away.
All the little birds such as goldfinches, purple finches, nuthatches and chickadees have vanished.
To my amazement, however, a group of ruffed grouse pecked away in the yard with the air war taking place nearly over their heads.
Go figure!
I have now suspended the feeding operation until the hawks move on. 

Sharpshinned hawk sits on branch mere feet away from feeder full of jays

Back view shows square tail that IDs Sharpie, not rounded like Coopers hawk

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Rare glimpse of a camera-shy critter

My first photo of a fisher. I have only seen one other
I have had at least one trail camera set up in the bush behind our home here in Nolalu for the past 15 or so years. Sometimes I have had three cameras on the go. I love getting wildlife photographs and it is a hoot checking out my camera cards every day.
I also had an ulterior motive: it seems everyone in the townships south and west of Thunder Bay has seen a cougar, except for me. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry maintains there are no cougars in these parts. They point to a lack of physical evidence -- no photos, no scat, no dead animals -- just eye-witness accounts. As police officers will tell you anywhere, eye witnesses often see what they want to see. Well, I was determined to prove the authorities wrong by getting trail camera photos of the elusive felines.
Now, 15 years later (it might actually be 20) here are my results. I have about 10,000 photos of whitetail deer of which 95 per cent are does and fawns. The next-most photographed animals are timber wolves at a few hundred photos. I have a few dozen photos of red foxes and a few of marten, porcupines and skunks. I have one trail camera photo of a lynx (although I have many more taken with a standard camera through the window of the house.)
Today I got my first photo of a fisher. I saw one other from the house a few years ago.
I have zero photos of cougars.
Do cougars exist here? Well, I have to admit there just is no physical evidence, at least on our land which is crawling with the cougars' favourite food -- deer.
But then, it took me all this time to get the fisher photo and they are known to be common in this area. Also I have no moose photos either and yet tracks tell me they still cross the land here at least once a year.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

No summer problems with bears

This plump bear eats clover blossoms on our property a couple nights ago
By all reports there have not been many problems with bears in Northwestern Ontario this summer. Typically the bruins run afoul of humans by raiding garbage cans, barbecues and bird feeders. However few bears have been seen anywhere, including along roadsides. What does this mean?
One of our neighbours who has a bear hunting business says there is a bumper crop of berries and the bears are feasting on them rather than in people's backyards. That makes sense. When bear problems are at their worst a poor berry crop is usually to blame.
I wonder, however, if we lost some bears last winter to the exceptional cold. We experienced a lot of -40 temperatures and when coupled with a scarcity of snow could have killed some bears in their dens. A typical bear den is just a few inches beneath the surface. A common site is in the cavity made by tree roots when a tree has blown over.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Book: let's begin writing it right here

It occurs to me that I can start writing my book right now, right here on the blog. When Brenda and I retired two years ago from Bow Narrows Camp after 26 years as owner-operators and a 56-year history at the camp, many of our friends implored me to write about that experience. I joked that a good title might be Wilderness Plumber, considering how much time I had spent at that trade over those years. I realize, however, that folks might like using the plumbing but really don't want to hear much about it. So I probably will call the book something else, eventually. Right now I'll just refer to it as The Book.
Here's a bit of a bio about my writing resume: I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in 1979 with a double major in biology and journalism. I then spent about 10 years at the  Chronicle-Journal, a daily newspaper in Thunder Bay, Ont., where I worked as a reporter, photographer, outdoor columnist, editorial writer, editorial page editor, wire editor, city editor, weekend editor and managing editor. I also worked for four years for a forest products company in Thunder Bay in the public relations department where I wrote the company's employee monthly newspaper as well as press releases and advertisements. In addition I was the company photographer.
Brenda and I returned to the camp in 1992 and soon afterward I started the Bow Narrows Camp Blog. By the time I quit writing the blog in 2017 it had over a million views.
I like writing. In addition to the stuff above I have written a couple of dozen songs and poems. I think my writing bent comes from my beginnings. When I moved to Red Lake in 1960 with my mother and father at the age of 7 we did not have television. It barely existed in the town and was only available for a few who could afford such luxuries. That definitely didn't include us. During the summers at camp we didn't even have electricity for many years and in the winters we stayed at another camp in Red Lake that did have power but no running water. Needless to say I did a lot of reading. During the long winter nights I read absolutely every book I could find. By the time I was 10 I had read almost all of Ernest Thompson Seton, Mark Twain, Zane Grey, Jack London and Ernest Hemingway's works.  I read romance novels, spy thrillers and murder mysteries. One time I even read the complete Instrument Flight Manual for pilots. I'm sure I could have passed the test if anyone would have given it to a 12-year-old.
With all that writing and reading experience under my belt I have a strong hunch that despite some great plumbing stories from camp to relate I should begin my book with something more exciting, for instance, how it almost never came to be.

Chapter One 

Holy smokes that was close!

In an instant I knew I was about to be charged.
The animal was staring directly at me and had its ears pulled back so far it was like it had no ears at all. Every creature I’ve seen attack has first slicked-back its ears -- sheep, deer, dogs -- but this was none of those. This was a black bear and it was really close, maybe five yards away.
They say your whole life flashes through your mind when you are facing your death. That didn’t happen exactly but what did flash through me were all the mistakes I had made that led to this predicament.
The year was 1996 and I was placing out bear baits for the fall hunt at various locations near our remote fishing-hunting camp on Red Lake in Northwestern Ontario. My first mistake had been in picking this particular spot.  A week earlier I had walked up an old gold mining road to where I had found a game trail. I was probably half a mile away from the lake -- so far back in the bush that a bear could not have heard my outboard motor when I drove up.
Mistake No. 2 had been in following the game trail until it led to a “clearing” where I had tied a plastic pail containing fruit, meats and sweets about four feet up in a jack pine. The “clearing” was actually covered in waist-high bushes and ferns. Because of them I couldn’t see if there was a bear at the pail from a distance and, more importantly, it couldn’t see me coming.
My third mistake had been not making noise as I approached.  Despite the isolated location I would have been fine had I only whistled or sang or tied a can with some pebbles in it to my belt – anything.
Now here I was walking through the tall ferns when a bear suddenly reared up on its hind legs right in front of me.  And if that wasn’t bad enough, a split-second later, two tiny cubs climbed a tree right beside her.  
It had been such a sweet afternoon too. I had left camp about 2 p.m. with my 16-foot Lund boat full of bait pails. It was late August and the temperature was very pleasant, probably 15 C or about 65 F. The sky was clear and the wind was light – perfect for running around the shoreline of expansive Pipestone Bay with a small boat.
As always, I was unarmed. The only firearm I could have carried legally would have been a long gun and that would have just gotten in the way when carrying the pails. Also, I just never felt like I needed protection. Oh, I saw bears alright. In fact, at some of the bait stations I saw them every time I was there. Basically they were waiting for me. They knew I was bringing food for them and that was one reason I had nothing to fear. If they scared me they weren’t going to get fed. They seemed to realize this and would, politely, stay back in the shadows. If I looked long enough into the trees I would eventually spot their beige noses and beady eyes. I usually spoke to them in a friendly voice.
“Hey there, Mr. Bear. You’re going to like what I brought today. I’m leaving you a whole pail full of apples and plums. Can you believe it? See you again in a few days.”
They never moved until I started up the outboard and was driving away. As I looked back I would sometimes see the dark shapes step out of the trees.
I had been around bears all my life: dump bears and camp bears, mostly, but also bears you just encountered while crossing portages or out for hikes. I had also helped bait bears with my dad when I was just a kid back when there was still spring bear hunting. I was totally at ease around them. When you are feeding them they just want the food and when you are traveling though the bush they will avoid you as long as they know you are coming.
But this was something new. True, I was bringing food but I had done so in a totally stupid way. I had seemingly snuck up in silence on a mother with cubs, a creature whose motherly instinct to protect her young ones has been well-documented.
And silent it was. I remember trying to identify the calls of unseen songbirds as I walked along the game trail. “I think that might be a red-eyed vireo,” I was saying to myself, scanning the tree tops when, POP, the bear rose up out of the ferns, nearly at my feet. She was silent too. The only sound came from the cubs’ claws on the loose bark of the pine tree.
Looking back, I believe it was the fast action of the cubs that saved me. Years before I had been in a couple of situations while out walking where I had encountered mothers with cubs and as long as the cubs were safely up a tree the sows had been cool and had run off.
One time, in fact, I just came across a cub up a tree.  I looked around carefully for the mother but didn’t see her and figured she had heard me coming and fled. So I took out my camera and tried to get a shot of the cub. The problem was it was evening. The meter in my 35 mm indicated I didn’t have enough light for the shot so I moved right to the base of the tree and tried to silhouette the cub clinging to the big poplar about 30 feet up.
It was then I heard a little sound and looked down to see the mother standing on all fours about 30 feet away. She wasn’t acting aggressive but was just standing in a spot where a few seconds earlier there had been nothing. At the same time the cub decided it wanted to go back to mom and just let go of its grasp on the straight trunk. It basically fell down the tree and actually brushed the camera in my hands. It then ran to its mom and the two of them beat it into the bush. Although I never felt threatened I made a mental note to stay away from a tree with a cub up it.
The difference then was the bears had heard me coming. The cub went up a tree and the mom hid in the bush. This time I had surprised the mom and her babies and we were all just steps apart. I understood that difference in a blink, what my mistakes had been, how the sow would feel and why at such close quarters her instinct would be to charge.
I had been walking forward at a slow pace with a bait pail in each hand and despite the sudden shock of her appearance I instantly started backpedalling with the same motion and speed.  I also started talking to her in what I hoped was a calm, soothing voice, kind of like talking to a baby that you are rocking in a chair.  I said something like this:
“Oh, I didn’t know you were here. Sorry about that, mama. No problem. I’ll just come back another time. You’re fine. Nothing to worry about. I’ll just leave a pail right here on the trail and you can get it later. You’re fine. You’re fine.”
Nobody make any sudden moves, I thought, and slowly kept putting distance between us, nothing threatening about my actions, just getting farther away every second.
I knew that the worst thing would be to run. A human cannot outrun a bear and my running would just trigger the bear’s chase impulse.

I put one pail on the path in the faint hope its alluring smells might distract her. I kept the other because it amounted to my only weapon. I couldn’t hurt the bear with it, of course, but if it came to a standoff, maybe I could fling tasty things around and get her to go after them and buy some time.
After a dozen backward steps I turned calmly around, so I didn’t trip over any fallen trees, kept my walking motion the same and also repeated my little message over and over, “You’re fine. You’re fine.” As I walked away I kept my head turned to see if she was coming. She hadn’t moved a muscle. Finally, at 50 yards, I lost sight of her but kept up my singsong and slow retreat.  I eventually hit the old road and it was then I broke out in a cold sweat and started to shake.
Whoa! That had been intense.


Friday, August 10, 2018

Survival of the fittest on the 'Red" Planet

It's a cloudless day but the sky is dark with smoke
There have been about 500 forest fires so far this summer in Northern Ontario and a similar number are burning in British Columbia. That's about twice as many as normal. Today's temperature in much of Northwestern Ontario was 32 C or 90 F. The atmosphere is so full of smoke you can look directly at the sun. It just looks red. In June, 50 people died from the heat in Quebec which just happens to be the only province that keeps a close watch on that statistic. People are dying from the heat in Canada! What does that tell us about the state of the world?
It makes me wonder what is going to survive as we turn the planet into a barbecue. The cold climate species are toast, that's for sure.
Insects are supposed to be the big winners, especially mosquitoes.
When it comes to mammals, I would bet the whitetail deer will find a way to survive. Right now they have found a way to adapt to just about every climate. I have seen them on some of Canada's tallest mountains, in the arid Prairies and of course, here in the Boreal Forest.
A maxim that humans get wrong every day is "survival of the fittest." People immediately interpret that to mean "survival of the strongest" and that is definitely not the case. Whitetails are tough animals, that's for sure, but they certainly aren't stronger than moose which are disappearing, seemingly from the heat.
Two young whitetail bucks among the cedars here at our home

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Can you spot the Boreal Forest?

Our recently mowed field

Scene along the ridge behind our home
Which of the two photos above is of the Boreal Forest? I'll bet everyone would pick the second showing mature cedars and balsam fir. I would argue that both photos are of the Boreal Forest.
The shot of the field is just what the Boreal Forest looks like after a disturbance. In this case I disturbed the vegetation by mowing it with a tractor. The species that are growing there are all natural. Nothing has been planted.
The field was quite beautiful with its native grasses and sedges along with wildflowers such as Ox Eye Daisy, Vetch, Buttercup, Purple Clover, Goldenrod, Yarrow, even a few Wood Lilies. All of these flowers were being visited by bumblebees and butterflies. It might seem a shame to mow them down but the truth is that if I didn't cut the field, all these flowers would disappear in just a few years. That's because the next successional stage would take over: shrubs and shade-intolerant trees. In fact I have been mowing the field especially frequently these past two years since we retired because I am trying to kill off the emerging woody plants which had become well-established while we were running camp. For 26 years I would mow the field each fall but that wasn't frequent enough to stop the relentless growth of the trees.
Each fall the field would be full of Speckled Alders, Bebbs and Pussy Willows, Quaking Aspen, and Redosier Dogwood. They were already shading out the wildflowers. I would mow these shrubs in the fall and then they would sprout up again from the roots in the spring and would grow unabated until I returned the next fall. It was as if I was farming shrubs.
A farmer friend here in Nolalu told me I needed to mow the field three times a year for two years in a row to finally turn back the shrubs. This fall will be the end of the second year and I can see that the mowing has indeed made a difference. There are almost no willows now and far fewer alders although some keep popping up. Mostly the field has gone back to wildflowers and grass.
 It wasn't like this when we first moved to Nolalu over 30 years ago. The whole township back then could best be described as plowed fields that had recently gone fallow. I had expected that the forest surrounding these fields would slowly encroach from the sides, that over time there would be the youngest trees in the center of the field with a graduation of larger trees toward the forest. That isn't what happened at all.
The fallow fields stayed pretty much the same for probably a decade and then suddenly trees started sprouting up everywhere at the same time.
The same farmer that would tell me later about how to get rid of the shrubs explained what was going on. The fungal mycelium that had been ripped apart by plowing had finally grown completely through the soil across the fields. The forest couldn't get started without the mycelium, he said. It was the first time I had heard of this symbiotic relationship.
There is a fascinating book that explains how this works: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. Trees use the mycelium network to communicate with each other and pass on nutrients and antibodies. You will never look at trees the same way after reading this book.
Anyway, the mycelium has been in place for 20 years now and if I didn't mow the field the trees would totally take over in just a few years. I only need to look at other fields that have not been mowed over that time. The trees there are 30-40 feet high.
A similar "natural" field-making process occurs from beavers. These big rodents will flood a forest with their dams, killing all the trees. When the food source is gone the beavers move on. The dead trees will fall down alongside those cut by the beavers. The dam eventually gives way and the water will recede creating a meadow. This clearing will remain until the mycelium is rebuilt. The stages of succession that follow will be exactly the same as happen in our field.
Forest fires, of course, also create forest openings that briefly allow wildflowers to flourish (especially fireweed) However, I don't believe the mycelium is disturbed by the fire at all. It is ready to support the new trees right away and the ash acts as fertilizer. The forest returns almost immediately.

It has been a cold, wet, dreary fall

Cork finds the perfect location