Urban Nature Challenge

“Explore your own neighbourhood,” advises our provincial premier, John Horgan for this long weekend in British Columbia.  We’re all being asked to stay relatively close to home to limit the spread of COVID-19. So, much as I long for the forest and mountains after weeks and months confined to the city, I decided have some fun and set myself a real Urban Nature Enthusiast challenge.

Geordie and I heading out on our urban nature safari.

We headed out to one of the least promising-looking locations, nature-wise, in our East Vancouver neighbourhood.

Our destination was the old Grandview Hydro Substation located at the noisy intersection of First Avenue and Nanaimo Street. This cavernous space is a perennially popular filming location for the local movie industry. From what I can discover, it was built in 1937 as a substation for the BC Electric Railroad Company to help power the old interurban rail lines that once criss-crossed the city.

As the traffic roared past, Geordie and I scouted around for some interesting moss, lichen or rust. I wasn’t really expecting to find much in the way bird life, but the trilling, whistling sound of many starlings lured me around the corner of the building.

The east side of the substation is covered in a cascade of ivy and, at first, that’s all I could see. It took a few moments before I realized that it was alive with starlings; specifically, fledgling starlings, merrily feasting on the ivy’s dark berries. Very few adult starlings were around, making it seem like a massive starling nursery — a relatively safe place to leave the kids while running errands.

Roll call at the starling nursery school.

Apart from the starling crowd, there were some robins and sparrows also enjoying the dining facilities. Nearby, a pair of crows seemed more focussed on another project.

These two were industriously flying back and forth to a nearby tree with a succession of twigs, mud and grass.

First, some structural stuff …

… and then some soft furnishings …

… finally, some scraps of cedar bark fibres, which crows often use to line the nest for its antimicrobial properties.

I thought that was a pretty good dose of urban nature for a trip to an old substation in a busy traffic area next to a gas station and was about to call it a day when I noticed the swallows.

At first I thought they were just more starlings darting around in the sky, but  I could see they were much smaller and more erratic. When one swooped only feet from my head I realized they were Violet Green Swallows!

I tried for quite a while to get a photo of them flying, which is hard enough because of their speed and random direction changes, but just about impossible in an urban area with all the power lines and poles getting in the way of the camera’s focus.

I found the best strategy was to focus on one bird when it stopped on a wire and hope that some others would fly close by. I just had my light “walking” lens with me, so success was limited, but here are few shots of the magical substation swallows.

I grew up in a very industrial part of a northern English town and I spent my childhood playing along the Newcastle quayside, discovering places like this all the time. Forgotten by the grown-ups, slightly dirty, dodgy and dangerous,  but full of adventure and new understanding for free range kids. My substation outing reminded me of those days, and the sense of having made small but amazing discoveries.

If you’re looking for something to do, I really suggest setting yourself an urban nature challenge, checking  out some new part of your local neighbourhood. It’s important to give it a a few minutes of waiting and watching to see what’s going on in the slightly hidden world of nature in the city. Bring the kids — they love a good expedition and, if it helps,  imagine it being narrated by David Attenborough!

A small chickadee making himself heard over the river of traffic.

Moon Phases

As the Super Pink Moon rose over our little part of the world last night I realized that it seemed like such a long, long time since the last full moon — the Super Worm Moon of early March.

Back then (in another lifetime) clouds were gathering, but life was still fairly normal here in Vancouver.

Super Worm Moon, March 9 2020

Many other people were out in the early evening enjoying the air and the appearance of the Pink Moon. “How breath taking is the moon?” we exclaimed from our 2 metre exclusion zones, as it miraculously rose above the city tangle of roof tops, wires and poles.

If there is something to be taken from our current situation it might be that, even in our urban setting, people finally have the time to just stop and watch the Nature channel.

On the last few nights I noticed neighbours taking advantage of any viewpoint to better enjoy the gorgeous sunsets. The top of the local school’s “earthquake preparedness box” seems to be a favourite way to gain some altitude.

The Pink Moon, lovely as it is, isn’t actually pink. Because it’s the first full moon of Spring, it rises at a time when the rest of the world is turning pink with blooms and blossoms. It reflects the pinkness of the world below.

Our neighbourhood is in full pink glory. We’re on the fulcrum between the falling snow of the darker pink plum blossom and the blooming of the shell pink cherry ones.

Mr. Pants guards “his” corner

Ornamental Plum Blossom

 

Quince blooming on a neighbour’s weathered wall.

Pink-tinged snow on Mount Seymour where, in a different universe, we’d be enjoying some late season snow shoeing and raven visiting …

Marvin in a pink world

Blossom nest  — the destination for this furniture delivery from a week or so ago.

As I try to adjust to the changes between the last full moon and this, I’m starting to get back to some work. I’ve got some new prints ready and I plan to re-open my online shops this weekend, just in case people want to browse in world of garden birds, crows and ravens.

The next full moon, in May, will be the Full Flower Moon.

Its arrival is a certainty in uncertain times.

May we all be safe and well to see it — and all the moons to come through summer, fall and winter — all the way to the lovely Pink Moon of 2021.

 

 

 

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© junehunterimages, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Northern Flicker Gymnastics

The Squirrel Buster bird feeder is an ingenious contraption. When anything heavier than a small bird (say, a squirrel for example) lands on the perch to get at the food, their own weight causes little doors to close on all the seed ports. Northern Flickers are also, technically, too heavy to use this feeder but, even though they have a couple of other food options to chose from, they clearly take this a personal affront.

Luckily they have their secret weapon, the mindbogglingly long tongue they keep neatly wrapped around their brain and ready for instant deployment. All woodpeckers have very long tongues, usually with barbed ends for catching prey, but the Northern Flicker has the longest of all of them, and their tongue tip is flattened and comes with extra sticky saliva for collecting the ants that they find so delicious.

So, back to the Squirrel Buster conundrum.

This male Flicker (you can tell by the red “sideburns”) has figured out that by hanging from the perch he can j-u-s-t get his tongue into the the gap at the bottom of the closing door. I was a bit worried he’d get his tongue stuck and we’d have a difficult conversation with the Wildlife Rescue team, but it seems he’s done this before.

Not only did he get the food out quite handily, he managed to also pick up the bits that fell out of the feeder and landed on his belly. This is where the really impressive gymnastics come in.

I’m pretty sure I saw these two, taking a break from digging up ants, exchanging bird feeder foiling tips on my dog walk the other day.

And, just in case you think it’s only the males who have figured this out, here’s a female I saw doing it in back February, so perhaps she passed on the technique to her mate.

Speaking of ingenuity I’ve been scanning the internet for COVID-19 mask making patterns, as it seems that medical advice here in North America is now pivoting in favour of mask-wearing for all to help “flatten the curve”.

So, just in case you’re also thinking about making your own mask, I’ve looked at a few and made a couple of versions for when someone from our family needs to go out for groceries. The one I like best is this one from the University of Minnesota. It seems to have a good fit, and it has a pouch to put replaceable home-made filters in (suggestions for filter material you can find about the house are included in the instructions.)

If you don’t have a sewing machine, these instructions for a no-sew mask using only a bandana and a couple of hair ties looks promising.

Stay safe and healthy everyone, and remember to take a break from the news and the graphs from time to time with some daily #birdtherapy.

 

 

 

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© junehunterimages, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Norman News

I didn’t like to mention that Norman has been missing.

I mean, so much else to worry about these days . . .

But it was with a disproportionate level of  excitement that I greeted our wanderer this morning when I spotted him in the lilac.

My family thought something was badly wrong (in the “she’s fallen and can’t get up” category) but I was just whooping with joy.

I thought my screeching would have scared him out of the garden, but he obligingly stayed long enough for me to get a few corroborating photos.

So, that’s it.

The world is still going to hell in hand basket, but at least we know Norman’s OK.

It’s the little things . . .

See also: Norman the Nuthatch

 

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© junehunterimages, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Spring Garden Notes for Sanity

I realize that I’m incredibly lucky to have a garden I can escape into, even if we’re confined to home.

It’s like having a cabin with an outside deck on the cruise ship of pandemic life.

The least I can do, in gratitude for my good fortune, is to share some of the things going on out there.

I hope to be posting every other day, about birds, or crows, or ravens . . . but some days  I (like many of you) feel just a bit too discombobulated to construct a sentence, so bear with me if there are gaps.

Newly returned pine siskin enjoying the bird bath.

Now that it’s officially spring, I took the bold move of finally removing the bird bath heater. Call me crazy! We may even go hog wild and get the small fountain out of winter mothballs too.

I keep thinking that the Steller’s Jays have moved on permanently, but then, when I’m reconciled to their absence, back they come. It’s not hard to know when they’ve arrived, what with the shrieking calls and flashes of electric blue — my cue to stop listening to the radio and rush outside and enjoy them before they move on again.

The finches, House and Gold, are providing a more melodic garden sound track with an almost constant chorus of song.

Mr and Mrs House Finch

The bushtits are back, but often in groups of only two, now that nesting season has arrived.

Female bushtit with her pale gold eyes.

And those bushtits are still using their clever little claws for holding their food like a the world’s smallest burrito.

I have been doing my Feederwatch bird count each week, even though sometimes it’s hard to settle down and do it. I have to say, I highly recommend it as a mental health strategy. Even if you don’t have a garden, you just need to pick a spot with some birds (even if it’s just a few crows or pigeons), register, and do a count when you feel like it. It doesn’t have to be every week — just when you can.

Often when I go out there to count it’s as if the birds know and they all scarper.

But I’ve learned that if you are quiet enough and just sit for a few minutes, you will find that there’s always a bird somewhere out there.

Often it’s just one modest brown song sparrow scuffling ever so softly through the shadowy leaf litter.

Or a finch, outlined against the sun on a high branch, gathering a long breath for the next musical recitation.

I suspect there may be a metaphor to be sifted out of that word litter  . . .

Song sparrow tightrope walking on the Daphne Odora

To close, I’d like to thank you all for reading my blog, and sometimes writing to let me know it helps a bit.

The fact is that writing the blog helps me a lot too, by giving me something positive to focus on at this crazy time.

So, thanks and stay well, be kind to each other. And to the birds, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

White Wing the Crow

I don’t think I’ve written about Ms. Wing before, even though we’ve been acquainted for a few years now.

I see her less often than some of my other crow friends because she lives on the outer range of my dog walks. If I go another way, I won’t see her at all — and I didn’t see her for weeks this winter when my foot cast kept me tethered within a smaller radius of home.

But the thing about White Wing is that she knows me instantly, and I know her instantly too. She doesn’t really have a white wing: it’s more of a wonky feather. The first time I saw her, about three years ago, the light hit the crooked feather in a way that made the whole wing look snowy, so her name stuck.

And White Wing does sound more romantic than Wonky Feather, right?

I thought I’d write about her now because, while the present moment is really tough in most ways, it IS a good time to get out and get to know some local crows — and Ms. Wing is good example of the kind of crow that can be the key to starting to figure out the Who’s Who of your local crow-munity. Solving that identity puzzle is good motivation to get out for a walk, and figuring it out can be a great distraction from other news.

As soon as I’m near the block that the Wing family lives on, I can tell for sure that, of all other crows, this one is definitely her. Even from a distance.

And I can tell that her companion must be Mr. Wing. I determined that she is the Ms. in the equation because, of the two of them, she’s the one who disappears for a few weeks during the nesting season when she’s sitting on the eggs. Mr. Wing doesn’t really have any distinguishing features, but I can identify him because of his proximy to Ms. Wing.

This is how Crow Cluedo works.

A couple of times a year, at moulting season, and sometimes during nesting, White Wing’s twisted feather comes out, and she looks, briefly, like any other crow.

However, it always grows back in the same crooked way and, luckily, it doesn’t seem to affect her flying ability … or her self esteem.

Mind you, she can look just as bedraggled as any of the crows on a wet day …

As I mentioned, I didn’t see her for at least a couple of months over the winter, but as soon as I got to “her” corner she picked me out and came down, with a slightly aggrieved expression, as if to say “where the heck have you been?”

Most of the crows I’m lucky enough to have become acquainted with have some sort of physical anomaly that allows me to pick them out from the crowd.

  • Mabel has one damaged eye
  • Mr. Pants has his pantaloons, in season
  • Marvin, when he first appeared has somehow spilled paint on himself, which lasted all summer until moulting
  • George had his broken beak (although it was intact when we first met.)

Sometimes the differences are easily visible, like White Wing’s feather.

Things like Mabel’s damaged eye are harder to spot, but I have my long camera lens to help out. A small pair of binoculars would do the trick too.  Crows are very territorial during the day, so if you see the same “different” bird in the same spot a few times in a row — congratulations — you’ve solved the first layer of the corvid Rubik’s Cube!

Mabel the Magnificent

See also: Peanut Diplomacy.

Stay safe everyone, and try to balance the understandably constant craving for news with a spot of Crow Therapy.

Some other posts you might enjoy at this unsettled time:

 

 

 

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© junehunterimages, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Consider the Bushtit …

Yes, let us drag our minds away from the headlines for a few moments to consider the many amazing things about this rather drab, and somewhat unfortunately named little bird.

And it really is minuscule, weighing in at about 5.3 grams — approximately the weight of one nickel. It’s one of the tiniest songbirds, coloured a modest beige-grey and, with it’s squeaky call, very like a flying mouse.

You can see how really tiny they are when they decide to take a bath. I remember how shocked I was as kid when I saw my aunty’s Yorkshire Terriers soaking wet.

Similar effect with bushtits.

It’s hard to decide what I like most about bushtits, but high on the list has to be their nest making technique. Essentially, they weave an elastic sock out of moss, grass, lichen, leaves, small twigs.

A bushtit nest I found lying on the ground after nesting season a few years ago. It measures about 25 cm (10-inches) from top to bottom.

The ingenious addition of spider web to the construction is what makes them stretchy — a handy feature as both parents, possible extra helpers and, eventually, 5-7 baby bushtits, will all be snuggled in there at one time. The interior is made extra cosy with a lining of downy plant material and feathers, while the outside is camouflaged with the addition of material from nearby foliage.

You can see a bushtit popping his head out of the nest, top left.

Another bushtit bonus: they generally come in bulk. It’s rare to see one by itself as they arrive in the garden like an excited tour group on a very tight schedule. One minute there are zero bushtits, then there are thirty. They’ll crowd the local attractions, tweeting their reviews, before abruptly weaving off en masse to the next stop on the itinerary.

They love suet, but they also like the finch feeder — and I’ve even seen them  drink from the hummingbird feeder on occasion.

Another thing for gardeners to love about bushtits — they will eat aphids from your plants! They also enjoy small spiders and other bugs that live on the underside of leaves. Their small size gives them the advantage of being able to hang underneath leaves and access a bug harvest there that’s inaccessible to bigger birds.

Me next!

One of the very most amazing things that I’ve just recently noticed about bushtits is that they can hold food in their little claws and eat it like a sandwich. I thought my eyes were deceiving me at first, so I spent quite a bit of time trying to get a decent photo. Not so easy, as those feet are so tiny and so fast, but here are a few of my efforts to capture the Bushtit Sandwich Effect.

I’ve not noticed any other of our local birds using such a prehensile-like feeding technique, and I honestly don’t remember seeing bushtits doing this until the last few months, so I sort of wonder if it’s one of those miracles of city bird adaptation.

Still need more amazing facts about bushtits? OK, how about the fact that, despite their tiny size and uniform colour,  you can easily tell the males from the females by their eyes? The males have dark, button-like eyes, while the females have light coloured ones — pale gold in our part of the world — giving them that intense “Angry Bird” look I do so love.

Male Bushtit

Female (don’t mess with me) Bushtit

The photo above became the basis of one of my most recent bird portraits of “Agnes, the smallest but by far the most furious of the Furies.”

Do you sometimes hear a small shrub alive with tweets, and then the bush seems to deconstruct before your eyes into a living Escher-like bird design — and it’s bushtits heading off somewhere else? That’s another thing I love about them. They’re magic.

So, while there are definitely a lot of massively worrying things going on in the world right now, this is a small (tiny, really) reminder that there are still many good and amazing things going on all around us — under leaves, inside mossy sock-nests, or flying around in judgemental little groups.

Sometimes, for your own mental health, you just need to Consider the *#@*!! Bushtit …

 

You may also enjoy:

 

 

 

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© junehunterimages, 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to junehunterimages with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Forest Bathing

sun in trees

Sometimes a little dip into nature does the trick, but sometimes, nothing short of full woodland immersion is going to work.

Most days my spirits can be revived by a quick dog walk round the block, appreciating the changing leaves, a bit of moss here and there. The crows, of course.

Last week though — I’m not sure it was a touch of flu, too much turkey at Thanksgiving, or watching the second US presidential debate — but I was running on my last cylinder.

Although I felt mostly like sleeping, we went for a walk around Lynn Headwaters Park.

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Because fierce rain and windstorms were predicted, last Wednesday seemed bathed in a golden light. It was a perfect fall day, all the more special for the impending weather doom and gloom.

Also, I hadn’t been in the woods for several weeks due to a series of unfortunate lower leg events. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it.

Three hours felt like the equivalent of a week’s magical vacation.

Coincidentally, ever since then I’ve been seeing the Japanese practice of “Forest Bathing” or “Shinrin-Yoku” popping up on my social media, and even in today’s local paper. If you Google the term “forest bathing” you’ll see that everyone from The Globe and Mail to Oprah is talking about it.

It seems that something we’ve always known intuitively is backed up by science. A walk in the woods is good for your health — physical and mental. No need to work up a sweat either. It’s simply being in the presence of trees that provides the benefit.

So, if you can, get out and find some trees to bathe with right now.

If you can’t fit it into your schedule immediately, I hope you’ll enjoy these photos.

Think of it as just a preview of your own real woodland walk, coming soon.

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Lynn waters

Should you ever doubt the calming effect of a woodland walk, compare Geordie’s before and after pics.

anxious-geordie

BEFORE – in the car on the way to the park. Geordie always suffers a bit of car-ride anxiety, worrying perhaps that we’ve changed our mind and are returning him to the shelter in California whence he came.

AFTER: Geordie, blissfully one with nature.

 

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