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Friday, 9 June 2017

Life Behind Bars & A Case of Severe Winter Blues


It seems that everyone had something to say about the last winter. 
Too cold. 
Too much snow.. 
Too long ...

Wonderful....
Great skiing ...Expensive though....
Hard to drive .....
Gloomy.....

Whatever.

For me it was a cloudy, cheerless winter behind bars. 
All kinds of them. 
It must have been the same for the birds and other animals.
Nobody but a couple of brave flickers showed up. The yard, usually dotted by animal tracks slept soundly under a thick blanket of snow. So did the bird feeder; perched there, on the top of the patio like a white ghost, the seeds going to waste.

It seemed that the only fun could be doing some macro of the snow and frost.
This is the window of our camper - from the inside! If only I washed it in the Fall.



Frost on the patio railing - basically the top of the fluffy snow after a very cold night. I discovered that I am not brave enough for winter photography! Stacking old lenses in reverse to get an extreme macro is fun - in the warmth of a study, not on a frozen patio. Oh, crybaby!



But, finally, the sun cleared the low winter horizon. 



And icicles begun to melt, turning to a more acceptable state. To me at the least. 
No more bars, life is back the grass will spring and the birds too, will soon return.

And it won't take long for us to complain about the weather being ...
... well ... too hot ... too mucky....too ...you know.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Two COYOTES and One MEADOW VOLE


"Three Is Company!" 

Really? Let's see.


It is the end of January.
Most of British Columbia is covered by snow and the temperatures are well below zero Celsius.

Pacing the hard crust of the snow-covered meadow there is a lonely coyote. Its empty stomach is growling the hunger song.

That's ONE.






But the seemingly lonely coyote is not alone!


Underneath the white blanket of hard snow grow grasses and many other plants. And hidden among the roots are grubs, bugs and all kinds of other edibles - perhaps not yummy to us but definitely tasty to an army of mice and voles. Their tunnels and travel trails, well covered and insulated by the snow, have transformed the meadow into a secret maze.




Much is going on underneath that cold, shimmering cover.

And the coyote knows it.

Its super sensitive ears, its nose and the sharp eyes allow it to sense what and where is going on under there. It has spied a sign of life, warm-blooded life, a busy mouse or a distracted meadow vole. That could appease its empty stomach!

The coyote knows exactly what to do! Listen, pounce, dig, grab, toss! Be fast!



Now there are TWO. Coyote and a Meadow Vole.


The vole knows that it is in trouble. It bites and it tries to dig under the snow and it nearly succeeds. But the crust is just too hard and the coyote too hungry and too powerful. The vole finds itself being grabbed by the tail and, over and over again, tossed up into the air. 

Did they not tell us all NOT TO PLAY WITH FOOD?!?
But this is not a game.

It is an effort not to get hurt by the sharp little teeth and the already bleeding vole is loosing its stamina to fight. But just as the coyote seems to be ready for lunch there is another, larger animal, charging onto the scene.

THREE is company!


The vole is allowed to fall and so is the first coyote's tail. That looks like a sign of submission, 
The second one rushes forward, grabs the rodent and ....the game is ending.

 The vole is on its journey to become a coyote!

Now there are only TWO.

They part their ways leaving us with ONE. After a while it too walks away.



The meadows are silent, the dusk is setting in and the temperature is crawling to minus ten.
One fed, one hungry, one dead. Three was a company. If only for a very short while.



It is end of January, the beginning of the coyote mating season (February - April). We could not tell if the two animals were of the same or opposite sex and/or if their behavior was somehow related to the season.Two days after our sighting we saw another pair in a different location. 

Saturday, 28 January 2017

The Limping GOOSE and an Angry MUSKRAT

One late October evening, I sat at the edge of Kootenay River, observing geese and ducks preening their feathers for the last time of that day. One of the geese, I noticed, was badly limping.
"A coyote got you," I though, "luckily not quite... better be more careful next time!" With that I said good night and went home.

A couple days later I returned, hoping that this time I might get a glimpse of the coyote as well. But then I got distracted by something else. Next to the river's edge is a small pond. It is quite shallow, a swampy body of water, overgrown by aquatic plants and reeds. And in that pond (or swamp) lives a small and fearless creature who taught me a neat lesson that I will attempt to convey:


The master and a hero of the swampy pond is a furry muscrat (Ondatra zibethicus).

The name is hardly suitable for a brave creature like him. 
(I have no idea if it is he or she so I will say "him").
For he is not a rat! He is a ....well ... a rodent, related to mice but he is not as insignificantly tiny as a mouse or even a rat! He can weigh a kilo and a half!
AND, he is amphibious, OK? So give him a break with that "rat" thing!

The "musk" in the muskrat is justified though. He produces this amazingly wonderful perfume to let his female friends know that he is ready for a date AND to let his male competitors know that this is HIS territory.



They might not like his advertising and show up anyway - to pick up a vicious fight to see if they can drive him away.

Not so easy!

But the ladies like him and produce their own musky perfume to let him know that. So at the end all his patrolling and fighting might prove to be worth the while.

If all works well, the muskrat builds a lodge, a castle for the family! It piles reeds in the shallow water and then, diving underneath it gnaws and scratches away the debris and mud until there is a nice and safe underwater entry-way leading into a beautifully dry living room that is located just above the water level. 
And all that is safely covered by the reeds and mud. 

A lot of hard, hard work!



There, in safety and the warmth, the young muskrats are born.


Thinking of all that work and worry, it is no wonder that the muskrat patrols its territory with an utmost care.
Dare to come closer to see for yourself!
That smudge of a creature swimming by the feeding platform is our brave muskrat and as you can see he is on a mission!

A small group of Canada geese just decided to explore his pond.


The muskrat wastes no time in taking off! 

He must show them whose swamp that is! He is fast and furious and the geese seem to understand that. They all swim for the safety of the shore. But swimming is not fast enough; they must take to wing. That's how fast he can swim, his long flat tail serving as a propeller and a rudder at the same time.

The have reached the shore in time. Almost all of them, except for one. 
He furiously snaps at the bird's leg, just as the goose is lifting off, missing by only millimeters, his furry body half way out of the water as he is trying to snap madly at the unwelcome guest. 




I am at awe. 

A limping goose!

And a coyote?

Not so. 

By the time I am able to process my thoughts, the geese are flying away and the muskrat, all adrenaline, is celebrating in the middle of the pond. 
He just sits there, tail up in victory, watching, listening, smelling ..... looking at ME.

And I am just happy to watch him from the safety of a high, sturdy bank.












Sunday, 4 December 2016

Tiny Treasures: SWEAT BEE and VIRESCENT GREEN BEE



It was a hot sunny August day when this little Sweat Bee landed on my arm. 
It was only a couple millimeters long, but what it lacked in size, it boasted in colors. 
It took to a puddle of sugar water (a hummingbird treat that had spilled out onto a stone) giving me a few precious minutes to photograph it.







The red ball is the head of a sewing pin, just to show a comparison in size.

 The bee does not seem to be too impressed by it.

"Keep that thing away from me, will you?"







Another little gem appeared about 3 weeks later.  
A Virescent Green Bee has been in our garden on several occasions, usually looking for nectar or pollen in the squash patch or on the sunflowers.






The metallic bees belong to a large group called Halictid Bees; small, usually solitary bees who build their nests in the ground.



It may take a long a long time for a person to notice their presence but once found they seem to be re-appearing year after year. 
That probably because there is such a huge difference between looking and seeing.



Saturday, 3 September 2016

An Ode to SQUASH



Never, ever again treat the spaghetti squash or zucchini with contempt! 
It could be that they (the squash family) are the smartest plants around and this is why:



If you ever spent about three seconds to push a shiny squash seed into a bit of fertile dirt, chances are that a seedling burst open the seed shell and then successfully took over your garden. In no time!


Then, it sent out a slender arm (or two, or a dozen); a shoot capable of climbing over anything in its path and attaching itself to poles, fences wire or fellow plants.






Shiny new leaves sprouted on the young plant and soon they shaded out the competition. 
Let there be light shining on those leaves and on the millions of tiny photosynthetic factories within. 



Was there a conference in Paris on going solar? That in 2016? 
They should have asked the squash - it knows how to use the sunlight! 
It has known that for thousands of years.


Eventually 2 kinds of flowers had been produced:

Some were male with a bunch of pollen grains arranged around a stick-like stamen 
(filaments that carry anthers with pollen are missing in squash).
The stamen is placed strategically in the center of a deep, hairy "well".
And at the bottom of the "well" are nectaries; specialized nectar-secreting groups of cells.
One nectary is clearly visible in the photo; it is the small brownish dot at the bottom of the "well".
Nectar is highly valued and sought after by many: bees, flies, butterflies, hummingbirds and moths.




Just a couple of weeks ago I had a chance to observe insects during their morning visit of the squash blossoms.                                                           
Various customers were visiting the flower but they were NOT after pollen! Oh, no! 
They wanted nectar, the potent source of energy and a crucial ingredient of honey. 
They were eager to crawl to the bottom of the "well", brushing against the stamen and accumulating pollen on their hairy bodies!



There was barely enough space for them to squeeze through. And the tough hairs on the side of the "well" did not make it easier one bit.



BINGO!!!




They were mostly bees and drone flies there;
the green one being a Virescent Green Metallic Bee - Agapostemon virescens.


After they left the flower, they landed on a nearby leaf and, surprisingly, proceeded to brush all that pollen away.

Only after they managed to get rid of most of it did they fly to another flower.









Drone Fly
A bee attempting to brush away the sticky pollen.
















After that they would fly off to find another nectar producing flower.
Possibly a female one.

I was wondering: did they know that they were being used?

Or was it Fair Trade?

The female blossom (top of the page) would also be yellow-orange but in the "well" would sit a 
different extrusion, the sticky pistil, that traps the pollen grains and allows them to grow towards the eggs that are placed in a "bag" just underneath the "well". That's where fertilization occurs. 
1 pollen grain per 1 egg. 1 future seed. No waste!


The female flower would also contain the nectaries.


Because ... how else would a female flower attract the already pollen laden insects?






But here comes the best part! The nectaries in male flowers produce thicker, sweeter nectar and in higher volume too. Wouldn't anyone visit the male flower first? You bet!

Squashes are efficient too. There is no beauty contest between them - the blossom, male or female, opens in the morning and before the day is done either one is closed and finished. You can almost watch the process with your eyes.
The extra nectar within the flowers is re-absorbed, re-used, recycled within the body.

Cucurbits: The Squash family. 
Vigorous tricksters, humble and efficient. Possibly the smartest plants in anyone's yard. 
Squash derives from askutasquash (which means "a green thing eaten raw"). NA first nations language.
Wikipedia.




Thursday, 1 September 2016

HUMMINGBIRDS of Southern British Columbia

It is late August in Southern British Columbia which means that most of the hummingbirds have left the deep valleys of the Interior British Columbia. They spent some four months here, courting, fighting, raising the young, terrorizing spiders, chasing mosquitoes, pollinating flowers, visiting the hummingbird feeders and making people smile.

A ton of work for the smallest birds.

"Do you still have the hummingbirds?"
"No, they are gone."

And, so is the summer.


Black Chinned Hummingbird, female, was the last one to bid farewell on August 22nd.
It did not matter that the garden flowers were still in bloom.


But all of us here know that we can count on them being back in April. 
April 16th, maybe the 20th. No later than that! The feeders will be ready, new flowers planted.

Rufous Hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus, male.

The feisty Rufous males arrive first. The ruby flash of their throat brings everyone to their feet. 

Welcome back!

They immediately get down to business which means that May is a month of high male-related activity.
Their throats, normally dark and nearly black light up with metallic ruby red that is visible quite a long distance away.



MY TERRITORY!!!














But the Rufous must put up with more than their own kind. 

It does not take long and the small but fearless Calliope arrives. Males first, females a week later. They too start patrolling their sites.
















     NO! MY TERRITORY!



Calliope Hummingbird, Selasphorus calliope, male



Then, of course, any dispute needs to be settled! They fight and fight and fight. They fight with the males of their own species and the chase away everyone else.

They fight over the territory, over the feeder, over the ... who knows what.










But then, the ladies arrive!









Hummingbird females show up later than the males. Without delay, they start checking out the nesting sites.




It is always a bit difficult to recognize who is who ... a  Rufous female or a Calliope?


I believe that this was a Rufous female.








Now the males become really active.
Aside from chasing their opponents and competitors they must to show off for the females.

Their courting strategies depend on species:
Rufous fly high up and then hurtle down kamikaze style while Calliope shoot up, only to come to an abrupt stop in mid-air and hang there like an evening star. 

The amount of energy spent is enormous but hopefully it will pay off.
The colours are flashing and the wings are buzzing and the feeder needs to be replenished twice daily.

And the ladies?

They watch from their secure spots, making their decisions.
And groom, of course. One has to be presentable at times like these!

Except... it is a bit difficult to have a good scratch with legs so short. 

Oh well, it will have to do.




Calliope female.


And while this Calliope male flies high and, like a gymnast on still rings, hovers in one place for quite a while, the female pays attention (hopefully).

9.5 out of 10. Not too bad!


Seriously, the boys don't have it easy at all.



As if there were not enough fighting and courting for the two, the 3rd hummingbird species shows up. 



Black-chinned Hummingbird, Archilochus alexandri, male.
















These guys do arrive the latest but then they stay a bit longer while the others have gone. Smart strategy.
They are slimmer than the chunky Rufous and larger than the tiny Calliope.



Their courtship flight reminds of a pendulum swinging from side to side not too high off the ground while the female watches from a safe spot.

Black-chinned Hummingbird, Archilochus alexandri, female.


But when the courting and young rearing is done, the males disappear. They fly to the wild mountain meadows to enjoy their bachelor life. And as July draws to its end the females follow, then the young ones. By mid-August only a couple of introvert loners remain. The hummingbird year in the valley reaches its end. 

And those who did not manage to record the ruby, dark red or a purple flash of the feathered jewels have to wait for another year.






Hasta la vista!

Flying South, have a good winter and see you next Spring!






PS: 
There is one more hummingbird species in Southern BC, Anna's HummingbirdCalypte anna .
Unfortunately it is more common by the Pacific Coast and still has to make an appearance in our backyard. 
But then, Calliope took its time to call our place a summer home too.