Twenty years ago when we left England we brought with us a pretty large bottle of Angostura Bitters, an essential component of any gentleman’s armamentarium.
It isn’t used that often, when it is used it’s only a splash at a time but when you need a Pink Gin, a Manhatten or an Old Fashioned then nothing else will do … even when you are the designated driver a dash of AB in a bottle of chilled tonic water creates a refreshingly grown up drink for those of us who just don’t want the usual offerings of alcohol-free fruit juices.
So – our imported bottle is now very close to being empty. This morning I popped into the local branch of the SAQ (Société des alcools du Québec, our government booze monopoly) in search of a replacement. Couldn’t find one anywhere and had to resort to asking one of the staff …
“Ou se trouve des bouteilles d’Angostura Bitters?”
“Ah. Bitters! Nous avons le Campari”
… and so it went on. Soon became clear the girl had never heard of the stuff, but she was quite young (she’d have been on Babycham back in the day) so I gave her the benefit of the doubt and asked for the manager. Efficient looking lady in her mid-forties – but no, she had no idea what I was talking about either. Big Gallic shrug and a pursing of the lips. Désollé.
“What do you do with it?”
“Make Pink Gins and Manhattens”
“I don’t think we have those either … let’s look on the computer”
Tap, tap, tap … “There you are, Angostura. I can get some in if you like”
I looked over her shoulder at the screen – she had found Angostura RUM”
I departed. Grumbling.
** It turns out that the bitters are available but in supermarkets (and not many of those, I am still searching) where it is stocked alongside flavourings such as chocolate sauce for ice-cream.
It struck me some time ago that books by birders seem to be obliged to include a section about how the author got into birding in the first place … why should I be different? You always wanted to know this didn’t you? Well …
My father and grandfather were both engineers. They understood science, and observation and the experimental processes but had little idea about matters biological that could be pursued in the fresh air. Fresh air was freely available to them, and enjoyed too, when you went hiking and had picnics but otherwise, while nice enough, was not considered of great utility. Nevertheless, they wanted to encourage my youthful and at times annoyingly enquiring mind that had already turned to an interest in matters animal and vegetable well before the age of ten. One day, I am sure they were thinking, this enthusiasm will turn to serious, career enhancing things involving grease and metal and chemicals but if the scientific mind can be engaged by what must surely be just a passing interest in birds and insects, then so be it.
I was about ten years old so this was the late 1950s. We were staying with my grandparents in a small village on the edge of Exmoor National Park and they, being sensible grandparents who thought their younger relatives should not wish to waste their days playing cowboys and indians (a popular childhood occupation of boys of the period) they presented me with some books to try to stop me asking questions they couldn’t answer and to encourage me to start looking stuff up for myself. Just think what I could have achieved had the internet been invented back then.
Not just any books, but they gave me the three volumes of James Fisher’s “Bird Recognition” published in paperback by Pelican. I still have the set, a bit dog-eared, plus a companion book, “Watching Birds”. OK, not actually the originals but replacements sourced with some difficulty and not inconsiderable expense from second hand book dealers across the Atlantic. Very much worth reading even today – birding was a very different thing back in the innocent days before twitching and big years were invented. Anyway, there I was with my wonderful early field guides and a vague idea in my young head that watching birds involved going out and, well, watching birds. What you did then other than probably write down their names in a notebook – I was and still am pretty keen on making lists of things – was somewhat hazy but clearly the first step in this new career was going to be to find some birds to watch.
My father drew the short straw and before supper one golden, sunny day (days back then were always golden and sunny of course) we set out across the fields to the banks of the Barle River to watch some birds … preferably somewhere where nobody was fishing as this was, and still is, a famous and exclusive and expensive trout and salmon river and men with cane rods are famously grumpy about small boys. I have since done my fair bit of fly fishing for trout and can totally sympathize with their grumpiness. I seem to recall there were several European Blackbirds, some ducks, a number of wheeling Swifts or Swallows taking insects over the water and I clearly remember my father sitting on the grass overlooking a fast-flowing section of the river to fire up his pipe while I climbed into the low fork of a tree to watch birds. We were allowed to climb trees back then as health and safety had yet to be invented.
Well, we watched birds – and that’s pretty much it. Nice birds, I liked anything like that but we still had no idea what we were to do next. Then I saw it. A small, rather nondescript brown bird with a white belly appeared on a rock in the river, bobbed up and down a bit, then jumped into the water and ran about on stones below the surface (the water really was clear) before bobbing up onto the rock again. It kept doing it and I was entranced. Birds, as everyone knew, are supposed to fly or perch, not play at being fish. This was magic and I could have stayed there for hours but Dad was getting bored and supper was calling so we set off home … where Mr Fisher’s books were waiting for me. Fifty-eight years later this is a clear to me as yesterday. My very first lifer, had I known it.
Back home, a cup of tea, some cake and out came Mr Fishers field guide. The bird’s identity was revealed as there my bird was. On page 144 of volume 3. A Dipper (Cinclus cinclus), “a bird of shallow, clear water, especially swift-flowing rivers”. A bird that walked under the water. How could I not become a birder and eventually a biologist with lots of letters after my name once I had discovered that the world contained such wonderful creatures? How could anyone not? There is no appeal in metal and grease that could compare to this. Actually, there is no appeal in metal grease at all and I have spent my life trying to avoid the stuff. Bugs and birds, they are the things for me.
A short digression here. Dipping is what birders say they have done if they have failed to see an expected bird. So to ‘dip a Dipper’ is to not see a Dipper where you expected or hoped to see one. Well, I had Not-dipped a Dipper and was a happy and contented child. Recently, I happened upon a short video of a Dipper (on YouTube, of course) that was filmed within a mile or so of the place where I saw “my” Dipper and was again, fascinated by this little brown bird. It is really a good thing to know that despite all that has happened to the world, these birds are still able to make a living along that stretch of water. One day I will go back and see for myself.
One final thing. I thought I had seen the bird walking on the river bottom, but I now know that I had not as the laws of specific gravity and relative density apply to these birds as they do to anything else and in fact Dippers ‘fly’ under the water using their wing muscles and only occasionally gripping pebbles with their feet in order to remain submerged. Effective, anyway. To confound things even further, the bird’s name comes from its bobbing or dipping activity on the riverbank, not from the dips it takes in the water.
From such small things does a career and a lifetime interest grow. “What do you want for Christmas?” “Animal books”. “What do you want for your birthday?” “Animal books”. “Where shall we go for the day?” “The countryside, up on the moors”. So here I am, sixty years later, a Chartered Biologist and fellow of the Royal Society of Biology plus a few other letters after my name, past-President of Bird Protection Quebec and with enough spare time to put this down in a computer file knowing that almost nobody is likely to read it … but it pleases me to remember.
All children should be taken birding or botanizing or bugging and helped to see what is around them. Every child who finds his or her “Dipper” cannot fail to care about such things for the rest of their lives and hopefully, be prepared to protect wild creatures and the places they live.
Dippers are still living along the river Barle. I think my elders eventually got over the fact that my hands were never going to be covered in oil and the chemistry lab was not to be my natural environment. They were certainly pleased that I unexpectedly managed to make a living out of things biological – actually, so was I.
I think that I am slightly more au fait with electronica than many people and am rarely fazed by a bit of software or the need to tweak a website … but last night I was brought up short.
I have a minor complaint about a “new feature” being served up via the CBC News live streaming app on my Apple TV box and wanted to ask the gnomes in charge what the heck they think they are doing and did they really want to force me back onto cable.
Send them an email and firmly ask the man in charge was my default setting so off I went in search of a “contact us” link on the CBC website. Nary a one to be found (though they do have a snail-mail address). Frustrated, I delved deeper and some six layers down in a rat’s nest of links I found a one-line suggestion that I might contact the programme via Twitter or Facebook if I really wanted to though they would rather I didn’t bother.
Grumbling mightily, I composed and sent a short and pithy FB message and was amazed to get a reply within five minutes, seemingly from a real person. OK, it was late on Saturday night and the “real person” was probably an unpaid intern sent off for the weekend with a laptop to keep the peons quiet with holding messages … but at least I had finally contacted someone. Whether it was effective we will know in due course.
But why is this happening? If they can have a guy monitoring social media they can have him checking emails too. Just like they used to do. Email is simply better for communicating anything beyond comments on the weather (far too hot, very steamy, thanks for asking). It’s not that I can’t do FB etc it’s just that I do not think it is appropriate for this sort of exchange and certainly not fileable and searchable in the same way formal emails are. I am genuinely curious to know why this change is creeping upon us, why the links are so well buried and what the corporation(s) think they will get out of it? Could it possibly be that they don’t really want to exchange thoughts with the customers?
We often have a tendency to believe that other species, and birds in particular, live lives of peace and goodwill to all other creatures. Quite unlike we wicked humans. Not so, not at all so. I happened upon the following account of the home life of Cliff Swallows while re-reading Colin Tudge’s excellent book, The Secret Life of Birds.
Here is the real community spirit of our avian friends … (quote):
The sexual and social lives of Cliff Swallows are so complicated that biologists are still trying to make sense of them, although few birds are studied more intensively these days. In essence, Cliff Swallows are monogamous, or at least they live in monogamous pairs. But the pairs group together to form colonies, in nests shaped like small pitchers, side by side, up to 5,000 at a time. The result, as Stanford University biologist Joan Roughgarden puts it in Evolution’s Rainbow, ‘amounts to a city of mud huts’ – although some Cliff Swallows are content simply to be villagers, and live in groups of twenty nests or so. Some males, too, just hang about, out of town, with no nests to call their own. In short, their living arrangements overall are as varied as those of human beings. Indeed, says Professor Roughgarden, socially speaking ‘Cliff Swallows are perhaps our closest cousins”. The city of the Cliff Swallows, as Roughgarden puts the matter, features ‘a hot real estate market, trespassing, robbery, hanky-panky with the neighbours, plus presumably some compensations’ — just like, say, Los Angeles.
The nests are very close together: so close that they may block each other’s entrances, so that residents sometimes ﬁnd themselves trapped, and starve. Or their home may be engulfed in droppings from above. The whole urban stew is a hotbed for pathogens, a veritable shanty. Sometimes the swallows — usually males — trespass on each other’s property, either barging in or following the owner home and blocking the entrance. The single most common reason for this, so scientists have shown — accounting for I4 per cent of all trespass in one study – is simply to steal grass, to line their own nests; in human terms, popping next door to nick a duvet. In 7 per cent of intrusions the trespassers steal mud that is not yet dry, to build their own nest. Do the birds know what they are doing, one might whimsically ask? Do they feel the frisson of forbidden fruit? Or do they simply feel that grass is grass and mud is mud, and next door is as good as place as any to get them from?
But sometimes the visits would, if this were a human city and we were being anthropomorphic, attract the attention of the social services or even the serious crime squad. In one study, in about one in ten visits a male trespasser forced himself on his neighbour’s ‘wife’. In about one in thirty intrusions, a female laid an egg in her neighbour’s nest — or carried one in in her bill, ready-laid, the strategy known as ‘brood parasitism’. Usually the nests she favoured with her surplus eggs were close to her own — not more than ﬁve doors away — and usually it was when the neighbour was not at home. Sometimes she would seize the opportunity to throw out one of her neighbour’s eggs, but often she would just add one to the existing clutch. Not all females in any one colony are likely to practise brood parasitism: in one study, only about one in three females did this.
Sometimes the female Cliff Swallow would bring in a chick, ready-hatched, and add it to the resident family. But in one in a hundred visits a visiting female would also toss one of the resident chicks out of the door, like Judy, the lovely wife of Punch, as if to keep the numbers even.
Time for an update. All the trees, bushes and shrubs are now planted and the site has been thoroughly dug over to try to get rid of big, thuggish weeds and ferns. Needless to say, that’s a vain hope but at least for now they are under control. Currently we are spreading a thick layer of well-matured wood-chipping mulch over the site and have got about 40% of the area completed. There is a blattering rain coming the next couple of days but we still hope to have got the worst of the job done by the end of the week … that’s probably another bit of vain hope, but you have to keep feeling positive.
All of this being written to say that if anyone with a shovel would care to lend us an hour or two of their time on Wednesday and Thursday mornings it would be a huge contribution to completing this exciting project before the real summer heat starts to hit. Bring your shovel to the site, just in front of the sugar shack, either morning at about 9:30 am and we’ll soon complete the job. NOTE: should there be any reason to postpone this we will publish a note on the Friends of the Morgan Arboretum Facebook page late on Tuesday afternoon..
If you haven’t seen the Garden in the Forest yet, here are somepictures of where things stand today … later we will create a perimtere path around the garden and a low fence will be installed to keep dogs and small people from trampling the bushes.
Towards the end of April, Chris and led a birding field trip in the arboretum for members of Bird Protection Quebec that turned out to be stunningly successful with slightly over 50 species seen … which for April, when the snows have barely departed, is exceptionally successful.
Today we repeated the exercise for members of the Arboretum itself (we do this every year towards the end of May) timed to coincide reasonably well with peak migration but personally I didn’t expect it to match the April visit for sheer variety. Well, it shows how wrong you can be. A beautifully sunny day, mosquitoes of course but not too many, and 56 species of birds in four hours gentle wandering.
A good number of warblers, lots and lots of Indigo Buntings, a field with returned Bobolinks, possibly the sound of a rare Black-billed Cuckoo and right at the end an overflight by a Northern Goshawk. The arboretum is an exceptional place to see a variety of great birds.
Pretty good, eh?
A few non-avian things to enjoy as well included a very well camouflaged gray tree from on a tree and definitely not camouflaged six-sppotted tiger beetle crossing the trail
Here are some photographs to show the variety of birds seen or heard and after them the checklist for the day specially for our bird-nerd friends. (As usual – hover over a thumbnail to see the caption and click any one to see it full size in a slide show.)
Great Crested Flycatcher
Gray Tree Frog (Not a bird)
Gray Tree Frog (still not a bird)
Eastern Wood Pewee
Eastern Wood Pewee
Just a bit of forest – orime warbler habitat
Not a bird … Six-spotted Tiger Beetle
Checklist for the day …
Turkey Vulture 5
Northern Goshawk 1
Red-shouldered Hawk 1
Ring-billed Gull 3
Mourning Dove 1
Black-billed Cuckoo 1 (a rare bird but one was also reported from the MBO this morning so we have confidence in the ID)
I have been involved this spring in a wonderful volunteer project in the Arboretum … we are creating a new trail (which I won’t spoil for you here, there will be an official announcement and unveiling later in the year) and alongside it a small group of us are creating a “Garden in the Forest”. It’s a lot of fun, really, despite the complaints from my back and the ever hungry mosquitoes.
The garden is envisaged as a small “copse” that will be filled with native berry-bearing trees and shrubs to provide food for birds and other wildlife throughout the year. We have selected species that bear fruits from early summer right through the fall and some even going into winter with a good crop of food for wildlife.
The site is filled with rampant weeds and ferns so there has been a lot of hard work trying to get them out … lots more of that to be completed but today we reached a milestone in that the bushes and trees have all been planted just in time for a good overnight rain shower that will settle them in. We are taking a long term view of this project – some of the plants will grow fast and look good in the next few years while others are going to take a generation to achieve their full potential and I may not be around to see that.
Species planted are:
American Black Cherry – that will be HUGE in 30-40 years from now 🙂
Amelanchier canadenisis – a species of serviceberry
Cornus alternifolia – pagoda dogwood
Cornus stolonifera – a red-stemmed dogwood
Viburnum lentago – nannyberry bush
Ilex verticillata – winterberry
Sorbus americana – rowan tree
Sambucus canadenis – American elder
There will be further instalments here as the copse gradually takes on a more polished look – at the moment it’s very much a work in progress.
Anyway – a few pictures of three volunteers (well two, I was behind the camera) getting those plants into the good soil. Having such a lot of fun with this …
While walking the Orange trail yesterday (see the previous post here for details and photographs) I was experimenting with recording bird songs using my iPhone and the Røde audio recording app. In the summer months there are lots of Red-eyed Vireos singing in the forest and I turned the microphone on what I thought was one just off the trail (I never saw it) and got a good, clear recording with frog croak accompaniment from around the mid point when I turned up the gain on the microphone. Listening to the recording later though something didn’t sound quite right for the assumed Red-eye so after some thinking and comparing online songs of various Vireos I thought perhaps this might be the rather less common Philadelphia Vireo.
I passed the sound file and my thinking across to a friend who has stupendously accurate ears for bird song … and he agreed, Philadelphia Vireo. What’s more just about the first in the Montreal area for this year according to eBird.
A good year tick for the arbo … here’s the recording I made. Something for you to listen out for when next in the arbo.
Note: The point of this post is not to demonstrate the song of the Philadelphia Vireo which anyone can find dozens of better recordings of elsewhere on the internet – rather it is to demonstrate how easy it is to record bird song (for later identification) using the smartphones most of us carry in our pockets. I have been very surprised at how good the results are and plan to do this more often when puzzled about a song I hear.
What a difference a few days make at this time of the year … here is the entrance to the Orange Trail just west of the Conservation Centre on 3 May and again today (17 May). The pictures below are of the same stretch of the trail at the same time of day.
Last week we took a detailed walk around the Orange Trail specifically focussed on the ephemeral flowers that briefly show themselves in the couple of weeks between the start of warmer weather and the opening of the leaf canopy which plunges them into shade – a few are still there to be enjoyed but most are coming to the end of their too brief flowering period … if you missed the photographs we shared and didn’t get out into the forest to look for yourself you can catch up by looking through the post on here from last week … click here.
Still lots to see at the moment though … and no mosquitoes. For example, on a two hour (well, we walked slowly and stopped a lot to poke at things) we saw some interesting stuff in addition to flowers:
Have you been down to the field between the larches and Pullin’s Pasture recently? Volunteers from the Friends of the Arboretum are busily clearing out an old trail through the birch collection and the branches are being piled up in the filed to create not a rockery, not a stumpery (the Victorians loved those), but a “Branchery”. This will create a wonderful feature for wildlife who will find shelter and food in there behind the boundary fence.
Down amongst the woody tangle are garter snakes and toads and up on the taller parts the birds are already finding singing stations to proclaim their territory to rivals.
Soon the field will be full of grasses and lots of birds that like grassland habitat will have moved in and be staking claims to their corner of the site.
On the edge of the filed one of the nesting boxes has been claimed by a Tree Swallow – here he is bringing nesting materials to his box
Other things to look out for …
Click on any of these thumbnails to enlarge them – hover over each one to read the captions
Northern Spring Azure butterfly
A rather young toad
Fresh ferns shooring up near the sugar shack
Volunteer branchery builders
As you leave the arboretum – pause at the radar dome and enjoy the Cliff Swallows nesting under the top gallery.
LOTS of pictures for you today … For about two weeks at the start of May (hereabouts) the leaves have not fully opened on the trees and the flowers on the forest floor make the most of the light before they are cast in shade for the rest of the summer … these “spring ephemerals” are showing beautifully this year. The photos that follow were all taken on a walk this morning along the orange trail in the arboretum but won’t last long – get out there in the next few days and enjoy this special time of the year.
I thought it would be interesting to show a couple of photos of specimen plants and then end this post a gallery of lots of pictures (bigger format) for those who can’t enough of this sort of thing. So, in no particular order …
Actually a widespread foreign invader, not a native plant at all, but it has probably become one by since its seeds arrived on the muddy boots of an early setter. One of the first flowers to bloom; nothing special or rare but it was about the first wild flower I saw in spring of 1998 when I was very new to Canada/Quebec so I am rather fond of them … as is this hoverfly.
This one is certainly a native flower and is found in several discrete small and rather wet sites around the orange trail. In the gallery at the end of this post you will see some close-ups of the flowers for more detail. It is apparently much favoured by deer as a browse which may explain why it is not as frequently seen as some other flowers.
These are simply everywhere at the moment. There is one spot along the southern stretch of the orange trail where a lot of standing water exists that many small islands are just overwhelmed with Trout lilies. According to the literature, the common name “trout lily” refers to the appearance of its gray-green leaves mottled with brown or gray, which allegedly resemble the coloring of brook trout … I have fished for, caught and eaten trout both here and in the UK and I can assure you this in no way resembles the colouring of any trout species on the planet.
Interestingly (well, it interests J and I) there are several forms of this species in which the pollen on the anthers is of different colours … most particularly yellow and brown.
Trilliums – Trillium grandiflorum (white) and Trillium erectum (red)
Carpets of these are all over the place … the red species flowered a few days ahead of the white form and are in fewer numbers anyway … but you should find them easily enough.
Wild ginger – Asarum canadense (Asarat gingembre)
This is quite vulnerable so if you are lucky enough to find it please don’t spread the word around of its precise location. It’s only called “ginger” because it tastes a bit spicy …
Beware. This is a classic example of why nobody should assume that a wild plant from which a medicine can be extracted is, ipso facto, likely to be good for you as opposed to a “chemical” remedy. Indigenous people used it a spice and as a medicinal herb to treat a number of ailments including dysentery, digestive problems, swollen breasts, coughs and colds, typhus, scarlet fever, nerves, sore throats, cramps, heaves, earaches, headaches, convulsions, asthma, tuberculosis, urinary disorders, and venereal disease. In addition, they also used it as a stimulant or appetite enhancer, and as a charm (sounds wonderful – right?). Unfortunately the wild ginger contains aristolochic acid which is carcinogenic. Consumption of aristolochic acid is associated with “permanent kidney damage, sometimes resulting in kidney failure that has required kidney dialysis or kidney transplantation”. In addition, some patients have developed certain types of cancers, most often occurring in the urinary tract.
So – admire, take pictures and walk away.
Spring beauty – Claytonia caroliniana
A gorgeous little flower that you are going to have to hunt for … we had to take a side track off the orange trail to track these down. Well worth the effort though. First nations people once ate the corms boiled like potatoes which may account for the alternative common name of “fairy spud”.
Jack-in-the-pulpit – Arisaema triphyllum
These are a bit later than some of the other plants here and only just starting to emerge so they will reach their full glory as the others are gloing over. Plenty of them about in small numbers.
We only found one small patch of these not far form the junction with the yellow trail. Very close to the path though so you shoulkd find them easily enough. The flowers are still in bud stage and will open shortly.
Hobble bush – (Viburnum lantanoides)
Our gardens are full of the many forms of Viburnum … this is the eastern Canada native form and is most easily identified by its unusual flowers. Will bear fruits later that the birds will dine on.
Wild Canada violet – Viola canadensis
Also occurs as a white form and hybridises wildly and wantonly with other violets so can be hard to identify. There is a patch not far form the sugar shack.
Not a flower … cones of the larch trees
At their red best right now. You will have zero problem finding these.
While we are looking at trees – Birch catkins
How’s your hay-fever this year 🙂 ?
And finally, the guardian of the forest … a Common Raven
It would have been too crowded to put all the photographs we have above, so here are those and more in a gallery. Click any thumbnail to open a slideshow at full screen size.Then put your boots and go find these flowers for yourselves while thye are still here … mothers’ day weekend is coming up, what better time?