There’s a lot (a lot!) of pressure on the gazing bowl this year.
Unlike tea leaves, the assorted bits of foliage in the gazing bowl confer no psychic abilities upon the reader — well, not this one, anyway.
Handy as that would be. Especially this year.
While the future remains stubbornly hidden, time spent peering into its depths does unveil some ephemeral truths.
Pondering the ever-changing patterns gives me a different way to see the world, if only for a few moments.
This year, I’ve been finding in it metaphors for history and ideologies — one layer affecting another —murkiness in the complexity —shadows and light — one thing reflecting another.
But then, the bowl (and everything else) depends upon Nature — and I hope we all remember that in the coming hours, days, months and years, and steer our history and ideology to reflect that truth.
Geordie, who seems to think that my prognostication receptacle is actually his water bowl, has lately been hinting that the murkiness I am seeing in it is less metaphorical, and more a question of diminished drinkability.
Begging his indulgence, I think I’ll leave it for one more day and then tip it out and fill it with clean, fresh water.
I’m sure I’m not alone in spending hours online seeking a simple answer to the questions, “how did we get to this place?” and “is there a way to get out of this place.”
The fine art of doomscrolling takes up far too much of my days. You too?
And, of course, in world full of confusion, contention and endless, endless complexity, there simply are no simple answers.
One recent distraction has been reading Dostoyevsky’s 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment, in tandem with my son who’s reading it for a course. As you may imagine, it’s not exactly light reading, but it very immersive and a trip to mid-nineteenth century Russia is a getaway of sorts.
Berries and birds have been my other escape this week.
In case you need a distraction, and at least the illusion of simplicity, come along . . .
There is a street near us lined with berry laden trees.
At various times, it’s populated with hundreds of birds. Many species are enjoying the buffet, but robins are the main customers.
Joined by a strong starling contingent ..,
… and a good showing from house finches and juncos.
The rarest visitors (be still my beating heart) are the cedar waxwings, filling up for their journey further south. More on them in a coming post!
And the crows. Of course, the crows. Some of my dog walk followers end up on this street with me and discover the berry delights.
As always, they are excellent models, pleased I’m sure, at how fine the ebony of their winter feathers looks against the scarlet berries.
The world does seem quite simple while I’m peering up into those branches and I actually have to force myself to head home.
Besides, while I’m photographing, Geordie is grazing on the fallen berries, with some unfortunate gastrointestinal results — giving me another reason to tear myself away and get back to the doomscrolling.
This gripping tale is a repost from nesting season 2017 … enjoy!
I didn’t realize it was going to turn into a saga, but now I’ve accumulated about a hundred photos of our local Northern Flicker family, chronicling their ups and downs over the last few weeks.
I kept meaning to post some as things unfolded, but it turned into such a roller coaster, I didn’t want to start telling the story until I had an idea of how tragic (one a scale of one to three) the ending would be.
Now the number of images is just out of control. I feel as if I have the makings of a small novel! And, besides, who knows what the conclusion will be in any family’s story?
So here is part one of the Flicker Family album.
It began earlier this summer when I noticed a lot of flicker calling going on all around the house and garden. This handsome fellow was to be seen, with his mate, working away with their beaks at a hole in the plum tree right in front of our house.
Northern Flickers are a type of woodpecker, and quite common in Vancouver. In fact, they were the runners-up in the recent vote to elect an official bird to represent the city. You can tell the males from the females by the dashing red “moustache” at the base of their beaks.
After a few more weeks, strange noises began to come from the tree.
The flicker pair were on ferocious guard at all times. Here’s the dad, holding the fort against a marauding squirrel. The squirrel eventually gave up and snuck away down the far side of the tree trunk.
Below, you can see the female flicker on the lower part of the tree. If you look closely, you can see also the male’s head peeking out from the nest hole further up.
Here’s Mom visiting the feeder in the garden. She was usually in the nest and you can see that her feathers were getting a bit dishevelled in the confined space.
Dad on guard, nest bottom right.
*** PART TWO OF THE FLICKER FAMILY SAGA COMING TOMORROW ***
Meanwhile – in an unrelated Flicker incident, we had the …
FLICKER IN THE STUDIO FIASCO
In late June a neighbour brought me a flicker that she saw hit by a car as she was waiting for a bus on a main street near here. The bird was stunned and in danger of getting hit again, so she and her son braved the pointy beak and picked him up to bring to me. The plan was I’d keep an eye on him and see if he needed to go to the wonderful people at Wildlife Rescue for treatment.
I put him in a covered box and I moved it into the studio to keep warm. But then I noticed that the scrap of towel I’d put in the box to pad it had become a bit unraveled, and a thread was wrapped around the flicker. I tried to carefully untangle it and … of course … the bird got out of the box and suddenly regained his powers of flight.
Part bird, part Swiffer, he scooped up some cobwebs from the skylight.
Understandably scared, he took cover behind just about every counter and work table in the place, then flying up the skylight (and doing a bit of dusting for me as he went.)
Luckily he finally made its way to a window that I could open for him.
Apart from never wanting to be in a studio again, he seemed fine as he soared off in the direction he’d been rescued from.
Another crow probably came before, but George Broken Beak was the first I knew of to claim the golden ring.
George, fall 2016
Mabel inherited it, and since George died in 2017, only she has been allowed to perch there. Until very recently.
Mabel, February 2020
The coveted golden ring is actually a yellow metal loop on a yellow metal pole — one of a pair used to suspend the chain that guards the local elementary school parking lot.
A relatively humble throne, but apparently of great significance in the local crow pecking order. I have never seen, for example, Mabel’s new mate, Gus, sit upon it.
In January, Mabel on her post with Gus and one of the kids below.
As recently as February, Mabel seemed to retain exclusive rights to the perch. One day I was walking by and noticed one of Mabel’s young ones come in for a landing on the revered ring. His claws a-l-m-o-s-t touched down before he remembered himself, making a last minute mid-air flight correction to land on a spot more befitting his station.
Whew, that was close …
Mabel must be getting on by now. Her one bad eye looks worse, although she is still apparently able to see out of it, and she still seems to more than hold her own with the other neighbourhood crows. But some sort of succession plan seems to be in the works.
Family meeting on the railings.
Just last week I walked by and saw a crow that I assumed was Mabel in her usual spot. But no, it was one of the youngsters, and Mabel was sitting by and watching with equanimity. In the photo below, the crow on the furthest spot from the post was Mabel, supervising and making no effort to chase the young one off.
The Heir Apparent, apparently.
I’ve been by a few times lately to see one of the young ones on the perch. I can’t tell if only one of them is favoured with the honour, or if they’re taking turns.
I’m hoping that, in spite of this apparent abdication, Mabel will be around for many years to come. She still seems to rule the neighbourhood with with a determined personality and impressive feather floofing technique.
I can usually tell it’s Mabel from a distance just from her silhouette — the fuzziness, and the attitude.
Mabel, Queen Boudicea of Crows
In looking for the first photo in this post, of George on his yellow perch, I went down a bit of a rabbit hole of memories of him and Mabel together.
Here’s just one of the photos of the two of them I found …
And here is Mabel, keeping on keeping on all these years later.
I photographed her just this afternoon in the plum tree, with spring just around the corner.
I thought I was actually going to be documenting the sudden and violent demise of Marvin this past Sunday.
I was at Make-It! Market for most of last week, but I took an hour or so off on Sunday morning to mail some online orders. On the way back from the post office, walking down the alley to the garden gate I heard a crow-motion, along with a simultaneous flash of massive wings.
A bald eagle had landed in the tree one street over. We often see them around here, but they’re usually soaring high overhead so you don’t really appreciate how very huge they are. You can see its true size as it perches next to the Crow Complaints Committee (CCC), voicing their various grievances from a nearby branch.
I’m sure that the four crows are Marvin, Mavis, Eric and Clara — the two pairs with territory closest to the offending eagle visitor.
And this is where I thought I was about to witness the death of one of them.
Based on what I know of the personalities of the four crows, Marvin is the most likely to pull this stunt.
As I clicked the shutter I closed my eyes, not wanting to see what happened next.
Amazingly, what did happen was that the eagle took off in search of a less irritating spot to spend Sunday morning … and Marvin the Maniac lived to annoy birds of prey another day.
Post eagle-exploits, Marvin was looking pretty full of himself.
While, at the same time, keeping a close eye on the sky.
This was the first camera I owned. Well not that one exactly, but this type. I received it for my ninth birthday in, gulp, 1963.
I don’t believe it came with a manual as it was so utterly basic. There was no focusing, no exposure settings, certainly no filters. Framing choices were limited to square.
It was case of: point, shoot and hope for the best.
Perfect for an enthusiastic nine year old!
This nine year old me does not look very excited, but I was. Our class went on a thrilling school trip to the Flamingo Park Zoo, in distant and exotic Yorkshire! However, as you can see I was always going to be more comfortable behind the camera, rather than in front of it. Or maybe I was just worried my friend was going to drop my new treasure …
A picture from the first roll of film I ever shot, again at Flamingo Park Zoo. There were also a lot of photos of flamingoes …
Perhaps because of this early viewfinder, I always “see” my images as squares, even when using a rectangular viewfinder. Square format came back into fashion during the Polaroid era, and now Instagram has brought it back. That’s nice — makes it easier to find frames!
However, I do like to think I “invented” the one and only thing you could do to vary my square photographic universe — the “groundbreaking” Diamond Shot.
Me and my first Canadian dog, Finlay, taking a break while tree planting in northern BC — a photo made using the exciting Diamond Shot method.
A pair of cactus-themed diamond shots taken on a road trip to the Mexican desert.
A more conventional square shot of some roadside repairs being done on the car that took us (unbelievably) to Mexico and back to northern BC again.
The good old Instamatic, although technically rather stunted, was super portable. It travelled with me through schooldays, university, and moving to Canada.
It’s portability, in the end, proved to be its downfall. While tree planting in a particularly gorgeous spot near Mount Robson, I decided to bring the camera with me to the top of a “run” so I could get a photo of the view. Sadly, the only place to carry it was in my tree bag, where it got wet from the peat moss meant to keep the trees moist and alive. As I advanced the film for the last shot, the lever made a sort of grinding noise from the particulate matter in there.
Still, the film did come out, and this is the very last photo on the roll. Great view, right?
It was a sad goodbye to an old companion, but that Instamatic had been a trusty friend for almost twenty years, so I really couldn’t complain. Plus, well … wet peat moss …
After some brief flirtations with Canon and Minolta models, I finally settled on an Olympus OM-1 film camera to replace the old Kodak. No automatic features, but tons of fun to be had playing with f-stops, film speed and exposure length. I’m still using an Olympus — now the digital variety. I’m on my third model after “killing” the first two, both times without the aid of wet peat moss!
Ah, they really do not make ’em like they used to.
Last bit of nostalgia. The little cabin I built and lived in by a creek in northern BC, circa 1978.
We started our day early when I saw her on the first dog walk of the day. You can see her raven breath in the chilly morning air.
In this next clip, I honestly felt she was trying to get through to a particularly slow student when she making her oh-so-carefully articulated speech.
Sometimes, you know how you choke up for the big performance. Especially when you have an audience …
But, for me, the highlight of the day was when I realized why it’s often so hard, just listening to her calls, to figure out exactly where she is. Sometimes it sounds like two birds calling to each other. Sometimes she sounds close, a second later, really distant.
The mystery was solved on Sunday, when I found her calling in a spot where she was surrounded by walls on three sides. The echo was so amazing that I just stood there for quite a while before I thought to try and video it. Unfortunately, the tiny and uni-directional microphone on my camera doesn’t pick up the echo that well — but you can see her stop and listen to her own voice coming back to her.
I wondered if she thought it was a second raven, or whether she did it to sound as if there were more of her and to generally drive the crows crazy.
Speaking of driving the crows crazy, I think this is Eric and Clara keeping an eye on her raven shenanigans.
Madame Raven completes her morning toilette, heedless of the scolding crows and the clicking cameras.
And then, this last weekend, came the bluebirds.
I only noticed them because I was scouring the area for the raven.
Something darted over an unused piece of grassland that looked, in it’s flight pattern, more like a swift or swallow that the usual small birds I see around here. Upon closer inspection, there was an improbable flash of summer sky blue.
Poor Geordie. I’m sure he sighed an enormous doggy sigh as our walk came to an abrupt halt and I started feverishly consulting the Sibley’s Bird app on my iPhone.
Not a Western Bluebird then — they have brown/orange chests. Could it be a Mountain Bluebird? I had never seen one, even though I lived and worked for years in the north and interior of BC, which is more their usual spring/summer range. It seemed so odd that they should make a sudden appearance in East Vancouver. The Sibley’s map shows the coast of BC as part of their migration route, so just passing through.
They like open grasslands with some trees for shelter and they had found exactly that for their Vancouver stopover. I guess they did some excellent BirdAirBnB research in advance.
The piece of overgrown grass had small bushes and fences for them to perch on to view their insect prey before diving in to dine.
I “visited” them several times over the weekend, often pointing them out to neighbours passing by. Some of them went to bring their families to see the amazing sight. None of us had ever seen them before. They reminded me of the little birds that helped Cinderella to do her housework and get ready for the ball in the original Disney animation.
More real … still magical.
The male birds are impossibly vivid. The females are more subtle in the their colouring, but there would still be a spectacular flash of blue from their wings when they took flight.
These appearances were, as they say in the furniture flyers, Limited Time Offer Only!
May many of your days be special, and may the Bluebird of Happiness fly over to your shoulder …
… and rest there for a while.
Oh, and if you’re wondering, when will their be bluebird cushion covers? … don’t worry, I’m on it!
Sometimes, on my walks, I like to play a little game.
I call it Alleyway to Art Gallery.
Something catches my eye — a piece of rust, moss on a worn fence, a shattered windshield, even some crumpled paper floating in the gutter.
At that moment, in that light, it is astonishing.
That’s how the game begins.
Part two is imagining that the little piece of beauty has been magically transported from the gutter to a pristine white gallery.
The lighting and ambience are perfect. The exhibited piece is HUGE. Twenty feet high.
Perhaps sparkling wine is being served …
The colours, the textures! It’s stunning.
In some ways, the game can be a little depressing since the imaginary exhibit is far more gorgeous and spontaneous than anything I’m likely to create.
But, therein lies the fun of it. It’s an inspiration. Something to aspire to.
Plus, before you know it, I’ve been on a little fantasy VAG, MoMA, or Tate Modern trip during the course of a dog walk.
It’s my little secret. Until it wears away, blows away, or the light changes, it’s part of my own private collection.
The pictures in this blog are of a treasure I found in a local alleyway around this time last year.
As you can see in the photo above, the alleyway in question did not seem, at first glance, to hold a lot of promise. I can’t remember how exactly I came to notice it. Perhaps Geordie wanted to pee on it.
It was a large painting, done on some sort of wood veneer with thick, swirling sweeps of paint. Hard to say if was acrylic or oil paint, or what the original subject was.
I’m not sure how long it had been languishing in they alley when I found it, but much of the paint had worn off and the wooden base had started to de-laminate. Moss was beginning to colonize parts of the wood, and windy weather had caused brilliant fall leaves to pile up in front of it.
One or two other leaves had become plastered to the old painting and random, yet somehow perfect, intervals.
It was one of those overcast, damp days where the sky is a dull grey, but all terrestrial colours seem extra bright to compensate. Flecks of blue left in the painting, and the touches of red in the autumn leaves, seemed to add little jolts of electricity to the overall composition.
I visited my little secret art show several times over the next few weeks, until it disappeared under the winter snow.
I considered all the the elements that went into the accidental “installation”.
The painter and their original inspiration.
The decisions and/or circumstances that led to the painting being abandoned in the alley.
The wind, the leaves, the moss, the light.
My decision to walk that way that day.
Geordie’s sudden need to pee.
Somehow this little game brings me much joy.
More and more I’m trying to find ways to steer my mind onto calmer pathways and thinking about beauty and serendipity makes a welcome change from too much news or the never-ending “to-do” list.
I recommend it.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like, The Gift.
It’s taken me a ridiculous length of time to get to this simple little blog . I’m just trying to update you on the WHO, WHAT and WHERE of the local crow families. But it’s complicated!
I tried writing it all in words and it was confusing even me, so I decided we needed a map. Voila!
Honestly, I did feel as if I could use something fancier, like the opening credits to Game of Thrones to do the situation justice but, alas, the budget is limited and so the map will have to suffice.
In the post-summer corvid reshuffle, you can see we have four families vying for hegemony* in this little corner of East Vancouver.
Let’s have a look at the protagonists in this little neighbourhood drama.
Normally, at this time of year, George and Mabel would have returned from their nesting area at the west end of the block to reclaim our alley way and my back garden.
Since the sad death of George this summer, Mabel seems happy to stay in the nesting area with the junior crow that she and George fledged the summer before last. They claim the elementary school end of the block and the alleyway to the south of our house.
ERIC & CLARA
Eric and Clara are sticking to their traditional territory which includes the south side of Notre Dame School (including the highly prized school dumpster in the parking lot), the east end of Parker Street and points west along Parker to Rossland Street. Of course, their jurisdiction includes the all-important ceremonial fire hydrant.
Sometimes they will make a sortie to my front gate if they see me coming out with the dog, or going to the car. They will also venture part way down “Mabel’s” alley, but turn back at “her” Hydro pole.
Eric takes his Block Watch duties very seriously.
They didn’t have any baby crows this spring. The nest they were working on blew away in an early summer windstorm and they didn’t seem to have the heart to start over.
THE FIREHALL FAMILY
The Firehall pair, on the other hand, had a very successful baby-raising year. They have three surviving adolescents — quite an achievement, given the long drought and tough conditions this summer. Their little population explosion has been one of the major factors causing a fluctuation in the customary corvid boundaries.
The Firehall Triplets
I imagine the three young ones will soon go off and start their own little empires elsewhere but, for now, with five mouths to feed, they’re venturing out of their usual stomping grounds.
Crowded up there on the Hydro wires.
They’ve even had the nerve to go and try pinching peanuts off Eric’s fire hydrant. Such audacity is met with firm resistance. They also come to my back fence sometimes. They’ve never done this in previous years and their visits have led to some minor scuffles with Marvin and his mate.
MARVIN & MATE
In the summer months, when George and Mabel would abandon my garden for their nest site to the west, a notice must immediately have gone up on the Corvid Craigslist. I imagine it read something like: “Temporary vacancy in well-appointed garden with well-trained, peanut-serving human.” This year our summer tenants were a crow with paint on his neck and a companion with the colourful feathers of a younger crow.
I believe that the crows that are most often coming to the garden now that it’s fall, are these same two — but it’s hard to tell for sure as the late summer moult took care of the easy-to-spot painted and the colourful feathers, leaving us with two anonymously glossy black crows. I think, from their behaviour, it’s the same two. I’ve called the formerly painted crow Marvin after Lee Marvin, who starred in the movie, Paint Your Wagon, many years ago. I haven’t yet got around to a name for his mate. Indeed, I don’t really know who’s “he” and who’s “she” for sure at the moment, but you’ve got to start somewhere.
We’re beginning that fun “getting to know you” routine, which involves a lot of “risk/benefit” calculation on their part. You can almost hear their brain cogs whirring as they try to figure out how close it’s safe to get to this crazy human and her dog.
They don’t look too dangerous …
How about from this angle?
I feel safer up on the roof.
Gradually, they’re getting bolder. Or possibly just more desperate as the weather takes a turn for the worse and they settle in for the winter. I think we’ve even got to that cosy stage where they blame me for the weather.
So, for now, things are a bit fluid — and I don’t just mean what’s coming from the sky. When a crow shows up in my garden at the moment, it’s a bit of a guess as to whether it’s Marvin & co, or a Firehall visitor, or even Eric and Clara, testing the northernmost limits of their territorial boundaries.
This time last year I was pretty sure who was who, and now it’s like starting the puzzle over. But, hey, I figure it’s good exercise for my aging brain. I’ve never tried Sukuko, but examining and sorting all of the corvid “who’s who, and where?” clues has to be almost as good.
NOTE* I have been waiting for 40+ years to use “hegemony” in a sentence. I believe I first came across it when reading about the foreign policy of Frederick the Great of Prussia for a very boring university essay in the mid-70’s. I knew it would come in handy eventually.