Urban Nature Is Fragile

I am filled with sadness every time I look out of my window lately.

We have lived here for 27 years and my favourite view has always been of the row of Lombardy poplars fringing the private school at the end of our block. In the fall it is golden, in the winter and early spring it’s a shadow puppet show of bird life. From ravens to tiny bushtits — the branches are full of bird activity all year round.

When the wind blows, the trees make a sound like rushing river.

Urban nature can be tough and tenacious. Dandelions forcing their way to the light through tarmac. Moss or rust overwhelming almost any surface, given time.

But urban nature is so very fragile in the face of human decision-making.

The school has not had a sports field for over ten years, since they redeveloped the site. We’ve been expecting a field to go in at any time over those years, and local residents are looking forward to the project being finished and seeing the students with somewhere to play and exercise.

But now we are realizing that they are not just going to build a field — they have plans for a sports stadium — complete with artificial turf and (most likely) the removal of the beloved poplars.

The neighbours are upset for many reasons — mostly the noise, traffic and parking headaches that the stadium will bring.

I’m anxious about those things too — but what makes me truly heartsick is the idea of converting  that little bit of urban nature into an environmental desert.

If the trees do come down, the City of Vancouver will require that some new trees are planted to replace them — but they won’t be anywhere near the stature of the existing stand of poplars.

The entire rest of the school campus will be covered with building, parking lot, and plastic grass.

It was on this campus that I spotted migrating mountain bluebirds this spring, and where I had my wonderful conversations with a raven.

The white crowned sparrows and finches like to bathe in puddles and feed on seeds from grass growing in currently fallow areas. 

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Northern flickers, I’ve noticed, love to watch the sun rise from the tops of the poplars.

I watched the whole unfolding drama of two crow families building and tending nests in those same trees from March to July.

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Nature in the city is a delicate balance.

It’s not as if they’re really taking paradise and putting up a parking lot.

You couldn’t really call it paradise — a big, rutted parking area with weeds around the edges and a big patch of free-growing grass left from when an old wing of the school was torn down years ago.

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But it has actually been paradise to those birds. They don’t really ask for much.

And, in terms of putting up a parking lot — there will be a new parking lot — but that parking lot will probably be marginally more environmentally friendly than the artificial turf football field  — an ocean of sterile plastic grass that will fill almost every square remaining inch of the campus.

So, yes — every time I look out of my window now, I’m sad as I wonder how many more times I’ll see the sun and moon rise behind those branches, and I ask myself where the birds will be nesting next spring?

 

See part two of this blog, coming soon, for a less heartbroken, and more pragmatic, view of this issue.

For more information on community response to the proposed Notre Dame Stadium, see the Notre Dame Neighbours website.

 

Crow Gossip

Just in case you tire of human news, here’s a “celebrity profile” of a different sort.

I’m not sure “who” this up-and-coming power couple are wearing this fall.

Their lives seem to be pretty scandal-free, although you’d have to listen to the roost rumours to be sure of that.

Politically, I’d say they’re pretty apathetic — although very vocal on some local issues.

Marvin and Mavis have claimed my garden as their territory this fall. We’re really just starting to get to know each other, but I can already share a few juicy details about the lifestyle of the loud and feathery.

First of all, they’re art fans — with a particular fondness for sculptural pieces. Marvin was first wowed by the rusty metal jay bird on the back gate.

Then, he became intrigued by the metal figure on the bird feeder.

He’s so impressed with the whole “birds as art” concept , he’s taken to posing as a crow statue.

Corvid performance art.

It is said that crows can tell each other apart by their calls. Until recently, I thought that the difference must be too subtle for human ears, but Marvin has a particularly guttural caw that I can actually recognize at once.

 

NOTE: IF YOU’RE VIEWING THIS IN AN EMAIL, YOU MAY NOT SEE VIDEO CONTENT. JUST CLICK HERE AND YOU’LL BE MAGICALLY TRANSPORTED TO THE WORDPRESS SITE WHERE THE VIDEOS WILL PLAY PERFECTLY.

What gets both Marvin and Mavis really riled up is … cats. This is actually quite handy for me, because they often warn me that the neighbour’s cat is in the garden and lurking under the bird feeder, or by the bird bath. They’re quite pleased with how quickly they’ve trained me to run out of the house, waving my arms and yelling at the evil creature. They also notified me when Edgar, our indoor cat, snuck out during the Halloween preparations. Again, they were gratified to see how promptly the ginger devil was captured and contained.

For Halloween, apart from the usual chocolate bars, I also bought some mini bags of Cheezies. I wanted to save some for after Halloween to test Marvin and Mavis’s junk food susceptibility.

All crows I’ve ever known have had a weakness for these frighteningly orange snacks. I don’t buy them often because (a) I don’t want to fill my crows up with junk food and (b) I can’t resist them either.

I can reliably report that Mavis and Marvin are as weak in the face of Cheezie temptation as the rest of us.

Note that the dog kibble and peanuts have been left for a second trip. Best get the Cheezies while the getting’s good.

 

Well, that’s about it for the latest hot crow gossip around here. Stay tuned for the next instalment. Perhaps fashion and beauty tips …

Marvin and Mavis, captured in a candid moment by the relentless paparazzi.

 

www.junehunter.com

 

A whole year’s worth of corvid rumour and gossip in the City Crow Calendar.

Marvin is the model in this newest miniature crow pendant.

Owl Wrestling

Let me be clear. Actual owl wrestling is definitely not something I’d recommend.

However, it does feel as if I’ve been metaphorically getting to grips with owls for the last few weeks.

One particular owl, in fact.

Since the wonderful day a few weeks ago when a barred owl appeared in front of my house, I’ve been working on distilling the magic of that day into a small set of images.

It was such a special day, I really wanted to make sure that I did that beautiful owl justice. To that end, I’ve been faffing about with this series for weeks.

First of all there was the issue of making a short list of the photographs to start working from. That gorgeous owl posed so obligingly for me, for so many hours — it made choosing the final four images quite challenging.

Then I had to decide which other images to layer the owl portraits with. Below are most of the final images that, in the end, became merged with the owl — but in the process of working on this series I tried dozens of other combinations of  tree, foliage, stamp, fabric and texture images. They all ended up on the virtual cutting room floor, leaving the set of images that are now on my web site.

Lupins, cracked concrete, katsura leaves, sky, forest, an old barkcloth curtain and owls — all combined to create the atmosphere in the final set of four owl images.

 

Owl Dreams 1

Owl Dreams 2

Owl Dreams 3

Owl Dreams 4

Some of the other images of birds of British Columbia on my web site. Buy four or more, and save 15%.

www.junehunter.com

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Squirrel Safari

Every dog walk with Nina is an adventure these days. Our objectives are in direct conflict.

Nina’s goal: nab a squirrel.

My goal: avoid becoming airborne* — I hear the waiting list for new hips is long.

Nina is my daughter’s dog and lives with her, but Lily works long hours, so I do some dog sitting most days. My dog, Geordie, has a pretty laissez-faire attitude towards squirrels. Nina, on the other hand, considers it her highest destiny to one day catch one. This seems entirely unlikely as she’s a lot slower than a squirrel on the flat, and her tree-climbing capacity is negligible.

However, a girl can dream.

I know you’re out there …

Generally, we see one or two squirrels on every walk. I keep a close eye on the landscape and try to detour us away from dog/squirrel proximity.

At this time of year though, squirrels are everywhere. And I do mean, everywhere. In the garden, outside of the window, velcro-ed to the neighbour’s stucco wall, up every pole and in every tree. Not only that — they seem fearless. They sit, waiting for us on the road, looking like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry.

Make my day, punk.

Many of the local trees are dropping hazelnuts and walnuts, so I imagine that thought is filling their little rodent brains. The microscopic danger posed by Nina and her ambitions are as nothing to them. “Must store nuts.”

One year, the squirrels in our garden “harvested” most of the LED bulbs from our outdoor Christmas lights. Our next door neighbour still occasionally digs one up in his garden. They didn’t do it the next year, so I presume that they remembered how disappointing that particular nut harvesting effort was.

Evasive action is pointless.

If I make a quick change of course to avoid one squirrel, there are three more, making each expedition with Nina a tense and exciting operation.

This baby squirrel got “stuck” on our neighbour’s “beer bottle stucco” house wall for several hours. Nina, of course, when bonkers every time we went outside, so we had to go out of a side door to go on walks until the squirrel finally figured out how to climb down and escape.

All of the squirrel photos in the blog were taken when not in Nina’s company. Geordie is quite happy to wait while I snap a squirrel. After all, he is now trained to be patient for my endless visits with the crows, so he probably just considers the squirrel another boring delay on his walk.

Looking down as Geordie takes a leisurely pee at the foot of this squirrel’s Hydro pole.

Going Up!

Going Down!

I was sure I left that walnut in there …

I’m not sure if the squirrel in the video below had hiccups, or was making some sort of garbled announcement with a mouthful of walnut.

* I do have past experience of being airborne on a dog walk. We used to have two yellow labs (brother and sister). One day they spotted a cat scooting under a skip full of rubble by the side of the road. The grass was muddy and wet and I lost my footing and was momentarily flying. Luckily I emerged from that adventure only muddy and slightly bruised.

 

www.junehunter.com

A few bonus Mabel buttons available with purchase of City Crow Calendar.

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Owl Dreams

Some days just don’t go as planned, but in a good way.

Today, for example, I had a number of studio tasks set out for the morning, all of which seemed very important — until the crows started going bonkers outside.

I always try to go see what the crows are on about.

It’s usually something interesting — sometimes it’s just a cat, but often a skunk, racoon or, occasionally, a coyote or two.

This morning’s furor was in the katsura tree right in front of our house. I opened the front door to see what was up, and instantly found myself caught in the hypnotic gaze of a beautiful barred owl.

Well, good morning!

Work rule number one is that when there’s an urban nature event unfolding, it rockets to the top of the to-do list. Everything else has to wait. Tiles remain unfinished, web sites, neglected.

Today that rule DEFINITELY applied.

The katsura tree was full of crows from near and far, all voicing their displeasure at the owl. Even a young Northern Flicker was joining in the scolding. You can hear him in this video.

 

This next video gives a cool look at the owl’s blinking mechanism – the nictitating membrane that makes the eye look blue, and then the fluffy feathered eyelids. He was also making a little beak movement when blinking. So amazing!

For about half an hour the crows, with occasional flicker input, continued their furious show. Gradually most left, leaving only the paint-splattered crow that currently considers the tree “his” and his mate. Eventually even they grew weary and flew off for a rest.

It’s a rare sight to see an owl in daylight. They’re usually sleeping off a busy night of rodent hunting. It does happen though. A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to see a similar sight outside of the Vancouver Art Gallery, right in the downtown core. I wrote a blog (Owls, Crows, Rooks and Poetry) about that day too.

But this time he was right in front of my own house. What an amazing treat.

He was there all day, so I was able to spend hours watching him. Neighbours came out to watch too. Our owl was a bit of a local celebrity for the day.

Sometimes the owl would fluff up his feathers if he felt the crows were getting too bold.

But no crow with an ounce of sense would get too close to these feet. Owls are one of the reasons that thousands of crows fly every night to Still Creek, seeking nocturnal safety in numbers.

In this photo, the owl looks for all the world like a character from a Harry Potter novel.

Gradually the crow posse seemed to forget about the owl all together.

Most of the afternoon was peaceful enough to allow a bit of a beauty sleep catch-up.

It’s late afternoon now and he’s still snoozing out there. I expect he’ll be there until dusk and then it will be hunting time again.

For me, I’ve spent the majority of the day photographing him, sorting out photos and writing this blog. That’s OK though, because that’s really the most important part of my “job.”

Every time I close my eyes, I see his eyes looking back at me.

I expect I’ll have owl dreams tonight.

 

See what happened at the end of this amazing day in the next post, Night Owl.

 

www.junehunter.com

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Noisy New Neighbours

Watch for the last few seconds of this baby crow self-grooming video. I think he’s auditioning for his own show on Comedy Network.

 

It has been a bit quiet in the neighbourhood of late.

That’s all changed with the advent of the corvid triplets. They do not keep their feeling to themselves. When hungry (pretty much all of the time) the whole neighbourhood knows about it.

The parents both look pretty exhausted. That dishevelled “new parent” look is made more extreme by the onset of molting season.

This is one of the parents of the three Firehall baby crows. Although my “babies” are now in their twenties, I still remember the slightly stunned, “Am I really qualified for this?” feeling that this parent seems to be experiencing.

I call them the Firehall family because the parents seemed to have their nest in a tree right beside the fire station that is on the corner of our street.

The triplets are venturing further and further from home base. One of them made it all the way to my garden, looking impossibly cute in the coral bark maple tree.

In the video below a harassed parent tries to get away from the ceaseless demands. Again, I do empathize.

 

Meanwhile, where are Mabel and Eric and Clara?

Now that George is gone, Mabel seems happy to stay with the “teenager” crow she and George had last year, in the alley one over from ours. I visit her daily and she seems well.

Eric and Clara are in their usual territory. They didn’t have any babies this year, having lost their nest high in the poplar trees to a windstorm early in the season. They’re kind of taking it easy this year, watching their triplet-tending neighbours with something like relief.

 

City Crows 2018 Calendars

My 2018 City Crow calendar is at the printer’s now and will be ready to ship in the first week of September. You can order yours now! The first 100 orders will come with a large (1.75-inch) Frazzled Mabel button.

If you’ve already ordered a calendar, don’t worry, you’ll be getting a free button too.

 

www.junehunter.com

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Thank-You So Much

This blog post is really just a huge thank-you for all the lovely, thoughtful, funny, comforting, poetic messages I’ve received after my last post about the passing of George. They’ve come via blog comments, email, text, Messenger, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I expect a carrier pigeon at any moment …

There have been stories of how people enjoyed hearing about him; how he taught them new things, maybe even changed their minds about crows. There have been whimsical descriptions of bird companions loved (and sometimes lost). I’ve laughed and cried reading them all. I have tried to write back as much as I can, but I fear I’m never going to manage as many replies as I’d like. If I haven’t written back to you, please know that I really appreciate your words and feel as if I’ve had a big hug from the world.

This is one of my favourite photos of George when I first met him. You can just see the wisdom and engagement in his eyes.

It was tough to lose George. As my husband said, when called him in tears to tell him the news, “It’s not all beer and skittles, being an urban nature enthusiast.”

So true — disaster and heartbreak is always lurking around the corner. But that is, as they say, life. And to quote Alfred Lord Tennyson, ” ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”

When I picked George up to bury him, he weighed almost nothing at all. I had never held him before, so it was a surprise.

I keep thinking about how very light he was. That lightness seemed such a contrast to his substantial personality and presence.

George was a gift. I hope he’ll pop into our minds whenever those of us who knew about him see other crows. And we’ll smile when we think of him.

George on one of his favourite perches at the local elementary school.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to get my City Crow Calendar to the printer, but I keep re-writing it. You would think I was working on a major novel, rather than a calendar.

I keep going back and forth on George in the calendar.

No George, therefore no morbid “dead crow” associations?

Lots of George, to honour him?

In the end, I’ve decided on some George, and a special page at the end to celebrate him.

This picture of George’s magnificent feet will be one of several in the 2018 City Crow Calendar.

Thank-you once again for all of the kind thoughts and messages.

I like to think that George, from his perch up in the Great Sky Roost, enjoyed them too.

www.junehunter.com

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In Memory of George

 


I knew I’d be upset when, inevitably, something happened to one of my crow acquaintances.

Even so, I’m surprised at how many tears I’ve shed since burying my pal, George Brokenbeak.

He’s laid to rest on the “garden of tears” side of the yard, along with countless beloved goldfish and hamsters, and the late Elvis (our cat, not the human — although there was some confusion about that when my son was little …)

George has been gone since Friday, but I didn’t want to cast sadness over the long weekend by writing about it then. I don’t really want to write about it now because it makes me cry again, but I thought you’d want to know.

On Friday morning I got a phone call from a friend and fellow dog walker (two rescue Westies.)  We often stop and chat about the foibles of our dogs, and the comings and goings of the local crows. He knew George quite well, because he and Mabel were spending the summer hanging out behind his house — and dunking food in his dogs’ water bowl. George, in fact, was a minor local celebrity.

Not nearly as famous as Canuck, his much more well known fellow corvid, but known in this immediate neighbourhood for his friendly manner, as well as his distinctive profile.

You could tell George in profile from far away. He and Mabel, sharing a quiet moment in the poplars in my “Delicate Balance” image.

My friend had found George lying dead earlier that morning, and he knew I’d want to know.

Since about May, George and Mabel stopped coming to my garden, staying closer to their annual nesting site a block or so away. Still, I’d see them almost every day when out walking the dog. We’d exchange pleasantries and peanuts.

I last saw him what must have been a day or two before he died.  All of the crows are looking pretty scruffy at the moment with the molting season underway, so if he looked a bit the worse for wear, I didn’t worry too much.

I think this may be the last picture I took of George.

It’s been a long, hot, dry summer in British Columbia. As a result, many parts of the province are, or have been, on fire. Thousands of people have been evacuated, and many have lost everything. Livestock and wildlife up there have died.

Here in Vancouver, we’re lucky to only have the smoke to contend with, blocking a lot of the summer sun.

The sun rises in the eerie smoke-filled sky behind the Iron Workers’ Memorial Bridge in East Vancouver.

But from an urban wildlife perspective, this summer is a disaster. We had less than two mm of rain in July.  None so far in August. Every puddle dried up weeks ago. Any worms must be ten feet down in the earth by now. I’ve seen skunks wandering the streets in broad daylight. They’re normally nocturnal and shy, so this is stressed behaviour. This morning I saw two coyotes on the corner of our block, again in daylight.

In the end, I’m not sure what killed George, but I suspect that, with the extra challenge of his broken beak, it was just too hard to get enough to eat and drink. I’ve been putting water out in front and back of my house, and over by the school at the end of the street. I know George had access to my friend’s dogs’ water bowls, but possibly it was too hard for him to drink efficiently enough for these harsh conditions.

George was found lying at the end of our alley — just a few houses from my back yard. I can’t help wondering if he was making his way back, coming for a drink in the birdbath and some peanuts. I hadn’t seen him anywhere near that part of our neighbourhood since May, so he was on some kind of special mission.

There was no crow funeral being held for George when I got there.  He was just lying there, looking rather peaceful. No signs of injury.

At first I thought I’d just leave him to Nature. Or the City coming to pick him up. In the end, I just couldn’t do it. I came home, put my rubber gloves on, and found a shoe box.

I dug a deep hole in the pet graveyard, wrapped George in a linen napkin, and sprinkled flowers on him. I’m sure he didn’t care about any of this, but it made me feel a little better. I placed a flat stone on his grave and stencilled a crow silhouette on it.

Let future archaeologists make of this what they may.

My daughter summed it up well when she replied to my distraught text with the words: “He was a good crow.” Indeed he was. Perhaps it was just his time to go, two years after his original beak injury. For some reason I had come to think he was immortal.

To read more about the wonder that was George, you can visit earlier stories:

And, in consideration of the thirsty and distressed birds out there, please think about putting a shallow bowl of water out for them wherever you can.

I’m sure George would approve.

www.junehunter.com

PS I know you’ll be wondering what’s become of Mabel. She is still hanging in there, over in the other alleyway. I walked by there this morning to give her my sympathy (and some peanuts.)

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Beat The Heat, Bird-Style

It’s going to be a scorcher this week in Vancouver. The news is full of dire sunstroke warnings, and tips on how to beat the heat.

The birds know what to do, and here is one of our backyard Northern Flickers to do a little demo for you.

Stick to cool, shady places. Preferably near water.

If the thermometer is really sky rocketing, it’s time to take the plunge.

Get thoroughly soaked. Feel your core temperature go down.

Aaah. Now that’s better.

This part of the flicker post-bathing behaviour might not be so advisable for humans.

I <3 Flickers

NOTE: In this hot dry weather, the birds may need a little help from us to stay cool and hydrated. If you have a bird bath, keep it clean and full. If not, a simple shallow container of water put out for the birds is a big help when there are no puddles to be found.

Apart from enviously watching the bathing birds, I’m working feverishly on putting together to 2018 City Crow Calendar. It’s coming together well. In fact, it would be done if not for the little anecdotes and smaller pictures I’m adding to spare spaces in the grid parts of the calendar.

Anyway, it should be off to the printer soon, and available to purchase on my web site by the beginning of September.

The cover model for the calendar will be … guess who?

Frazzled Mabel, naturally!

www.junehunter.com

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Flicker Family Saga – Part Two

This is a quite long story, with many pictures, and some emotional ups and down. You might need to arm yourself with a cup of tea and take a comfy seat before settling in to read. OK, here we go …

By the end of June, the flicker nest was the talk of the street. Everyone was keeping a discreet eye on the plum tree goings-on and neighbours would discuss the activity over the garden fences.

baby flicker looks out of nest, photograph by June Hunter, 2017

Each morning I was checking the tree to see if the sounds were still in there. Sometimes it was quiet (I guess there was nap time) and sometimes the little murmurings were there. Then, one morning in early July, I was rewarded by this adorable face at the “window.”

Note: If you missed PART ONE, you can read it HERE.

That’s a great big world out there …


Baby Northern Flicker, photo by © June Hunter Images, 2017

Hey, I’m hungry over here!


Baby Northern Flicker with Parent, photo by © June Hunter Images, 2017

Ah, here comes Mom with lunch.

Northern Flicker mother feeds baby, photograph by June Hunter, 2017

TRAGEDY STRIKES

Everything was looking so good for the little family. The parents were such fierce guardians, and the babies seemed safe in their tree fortress.

One morning I got up very early to see what was new.

What was new was this: absolute silence at the nest and a sad pile of flicker feathers around the base of the tree.

Further exploration revealed the remains of a baby flicker on the road.

I’m not sure if the culprit was the returning squirrel, the neighbour’s cat, or my buddies the crows. I try to put in the perspective of the circle of life and all that, but I must say I was pretty sad.

The flicker parents were still around, but no sign of any babies. I wondered if they’d lost their one and only fledgling for that year.

Northern Flicker in Bird Bath, photo by © June Hunter Images, 2017

Dad at the bird bath.

FLICKER SURPRISE

The following day I took a cup of tea out to the front of the house and was startled by a great flapping in the windowed end of the porch. It was a baby flicker, vainly trying to fly to freedom through the glass.

Luckily, I still had the “rescue box” from the last flicker episode on hand. I grabbed a towel (not fraying at the edges this time!) and put it over the head of the baby. She immediately stopped flapping and I put her in the box with the lid on.

I was somewhat torn about releasing her, worrying that whatever killed her sibling would get her too. However, I took a deep breath and let her go in the back garden, where there’s lots of cover.

Failed picture of release – but you can see her tail feathers as she exits the frame.


Baby Northern Flicker, photo by © June Hunter Images, 2017

She sat for a minute in the lilac tree, getting her bearings.

I was worried that there were no sign of the parents. After a few moments to collect herself, the baby flicker took off and flew away north.

Over the next few days I’d hear calls of adult and baby flickers around the garden.

I heard the soft thud of baby flicker flight mishaps a few times.

FAMILY PHOTOS

My husband was sitting quietly in the garden and spotted the two adults and the fledgling flicker all together at the bird bath. I was happy to think that at least the surviving baby was gathering skills and under the guardianship of the parents.

Yesterday it was my turn. I saw both parents and, not one, but TWO baby flickers in the garden — one male, one female. Below is a video of the mother feeding the female fledgling on the roof of my studio.

Here are the siblings playing around in the lilac tree.

Northern Flicker fledglings, photograph by June Hunter, 2017

EVEN MORE BABIES!

This morning I actually think I spotted THREE fledglings – one male and two female. Now I’m starting to wonder how many baby flickers can fit into the trunk of a medium sized ornamental plum tree. No wonder there were so many sounds coming out of there!

Male Flicker fledgling on roof, photography by June Hunter, © June Hunter 2017 www.junehunterimages.com

Male Flicker fledgling


Sisters in the lilac


Sleepy Flicker fledgling in tree, photography by June Hunter, © June Hunter 2017 www.junehunterimages.com

There are few things cuter than a sleepy baby Flicker.

So, the Flicker Family Saga continues. As is the way of life, tomorrow may bring a sad pile of feathers, but for today things are looking pretty promising for the Flicker Family of Parker Street.

I have so many northern flicker images to work with now, I hardly know where to start.

For now, I have this print available in my online shop.

If you missed Part One of the FLICKER FAMILY SAGA, you can read it HERE.

www.junehunter.com

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