Category Archives: Birds

12 Days of Christmas 2015 – Day Four Birdland

Raised in rural Manitoba I developed an early appreciation of birds evidenced by the complete collection of Red Rose Tea Bird Cards on this page. My travels on the prairies including several unexpected birds. Find them all my Birdland page.

CEDAR WAXWINGS IN BRANDON

cedar 1

It was a strange April day in Manitoba: temperatures around 30 degrees C and clear blue skies all weekend long.  I was staying with my cousin, Duncan, in the east end of Brandon. On the day I arrived, Duncan pointed out an ornamental cherry tree in his neighbour’s backyard that was loaded with shriveled red cherries. Unfit for human consumption, the cherries are a delicacy of certain birds that, according to Duncan, each spring swarm the tree and feast on the cherries, now sweetened by winter’s freezing and thawing.

The next morning, as if induced by my cousin’s comment, the tree was alive with cedar waxwings. Famished from their long migration, the waxwings cover the tree and the ground below, ravenously eating the cherries. A flock of birds flies up from the ground into the branches and the ones from the tree swarm to the ground, excited birds, appetites whetted, blissful on a hot strange spring day.

The air was vibrating with the shrill keening of the waxwings. Several large still-bare nearby trees were decorated with more cedar waxwings waiting to feed, hundreds of birds in all. Flock after flock dined at the cherry tree.

Several curious species – robins, blue jays and starlings – arrived to see what all the commotion was about. These birds prefer feeders and worms to cherries but waxwing enthusiasm was contagious.  The feeding frenzy went on most of the morning then the flock was gone, the air still, quiet, hot.

In a few weeks, the cherry tree will be smothered in tiny white and pink blossoms that perfume the air with a sweet smell. By then subsequent flocks will have stripped all the cherries from the tree.

Cedar waxwings have the ability to digest a variety of berries, some of which are poisonous to humans. Gorging themselves for hours, waxwings have been known to get a little drunk if the berries have fermented.

A sleek, beautiful creature, cedar waxwings are strikingly identifiable: the brown topnotch crest and breast with grey wings and tail, the yellow wash over the belly, the dark eye mask and throat marking, the yellow tail tip and the distinctive waxy red drops on the wings which give the birds their name. The females are somewhat plainer. Cedar waxwings are one of the few birds whose numbers are increasing in North America.

Coniferous trees are favoured places to build their deep nests. Chicks are born late to ensure a supply of berries and bugs for their growth. I remember seeing waxwings as a kid in western Manitoba. Apparently they abound in Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg but I haven’t seen one in our neighbourhood for years. The last time I saw one was a few years ago at Last Mountain Lake in Saskatchewan. I was camping next to the bird sanctuary and saw a nesting pair.

What a hopeful sign it was to see a huge flock of excited birds so eager to fulfill their biological imperative. I had begun to wonder if there were large flocks of any birds remaining. It was good to see an old friend return with such vigor.

 August 6/02

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Filed under 12 days of christmas 2015, 1950s, Birds, Hope, Soul Building, Spirit

Autumn Music at Spirit Sands

SPIRIT SANDS AUTUMN 006

Reid Dickie

Shirtless in the 20+ degree C afternoon I sat at the top of one of the park’s highest dunes yesterday and the scene above spread out before me. The bright yellows of the poplar and aspen glowed against the ever-elegant evergreens beyond accompanied by the subtle music of autumn on the prairies.

Overhead, late for the sky, Vs of migrating geese sang their urgent pleas harmonizing with the gentle clatter of changing leaves in the afternoon breeze. Atwitter with lively applause during their green days, aspens and poplars intoned a more sombre tune against the wind sighing through conifer boughs. Though most birds have flown south, blue jays squawked and an occasional chickadee punctuated the sunshine with its familiar song as crickets counted down the days til winter’s sleep.

SPIRIT SANDS AUTUMN 004

In fall it’s striking how overgrown with various vegetation the dunes have become as you can see in the picture above. The shot below shows a new dune created by the prevailing northwesterlies.

SPIRIT SANDS AUTUMN 011

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Souris Will Swing Again – 2012 Update

Reid Dickie

A year ago, in the summer of 2011, the Souris River wreaked havoc on the little town that bears its name (Souris means ‘mouse’ in French) leaving its valley and many amenities in ruins, including the town’s main tourist draw, the swinging bridge, a historic achievement but a small nightmare for people with height and balance issues.

This year plans have been set to rebuild the historic swinging bridge: footings in by the fall and cabled spanning completed when the river freezes. It’s good news for the beleaguered little town.

In my August 9, 2012 video report find out what’s up with Souris’ free-range peacock community and know, just know in your heart, that the Sowden Castle, now Hillcrest Museum, is filled with provocative and precious relics that resonate from all our pale-face pasts as the ancestors ventured onto the broad western frontier. Feel the wind burning your face, squint at the unbelievable brightness of the sun (sans chem trails) and feel the deep down sacredness of your own flesh, your own moment. To watch my video update on the swinging bridge, peacocks and peahens (say it out loud) and the Sowden Castle click the pic of the peahens (say it out loud again, go on, you want to) below.

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Gathering Moonlight at Spruce Woods Park

Reid Dickie

“The moon’s a harsh mistress, it’s hard to love her well,

The moon’s a harsh mistress, the sky is made of stone,

The moon’s a harsh mistress, she’s hard to call your own.”

– Jimmy Webb

These are the buttery days of a new ancient summer. In their fluttering perfection, butterflies dot the world. Their true colours range from solid black through red, orange, yellow to iridescent blues, always stoned on some intoxicating nectar or other. Dragonflies have started to appear; mosquitoes aren’t far behind. Such was the world I entered Monday when I checked into Yurt #4 at Spruce Woods Provincial Park for a two-day stay.

Ensconced on my deck facing WNW, the temperature around 28 degree C, I have found a little Eden. The late afternoon breeze plucks music from the oaks and cottonwoods along the Assiniboine River, which I can see shining below. A dozen kinds of birds twitter in the trees, their songs striving to capture the counterpoint of the afternoon. They are successful every moment.

A huge yellow butterfly with blue trimmed wings dances above my glass of wine. Unable to resist, it lands on the rim, sips delicately and does a backward somersault off the glass into its fluttery world. My plan is to await dusk then hike out on Spirit Sands to watch the full moon rise over the dunes.

The day is cooling perfectly as I head out to Spirit Sands about 9:30. The golden sky deepens to red then crimson then purple and darker as I surmount the log ladder up the dune face. Arriving at the place on the dunes Linda and I always visited, I hear voices among the trees below. The last of the humans are clearing off the trails. I am alone.

As I await moonrise, coyotes howl in the west and are answered by others in the east. The flies and mosquitoes find me extra attractive with my coating of sweat from the hike. As a slight evening breeze cools my skin, a pale glow on the northeastern horizon heralds the full moon. It swells into view bulbous and red, and I am filled with bliss and gratitude for this witnessing.

I spend an hour watching the night deepen and the moon whiten. Hiking back during the very last moments of twilight, the shadows are flecked with occasional fireflies. After decades of gathering moonlight, the long-fallen bodies of blown-down trees shine like silver. Standing armies of wolf willow glow eerily in the moonlight.

Back at my yurt I light a fire and watch the stars come out. Hundreds of fireflies flicker on and off in the trees around my yurtyard. Fireflies are a positive sign of a healthy habitat. Crickets and choruses of frogs, the small cries of night birds, crackle of the fire and rustle of the constellations harmonize around me.

After a long sound sleep I awoke Tuesday to another perfect day! I took a drive to the nearby Criddle/Vane homestead (blog post to follow), toured the area a bit, lunched at the Robin’s Nest in Carberry where I see the temperature to be even hotter tomorrow. The Robin’s Nest is a quaint little restaurant and motel along the TCH. I recommend it for its good country food, friendly staff and it’s now licensed.

Back at Yurt #4, the drone of a bumblebee intoxicates me in the heat. A red-headed woodpecker taps out a secret message on the trunk of a gnarly old oak. The park is still and quiet today with just the warbles and sighs of the denizens. The day wears away and night captures the land. Like stars, the fireflies are continuous tonight. Everywhere I look I see them, flitting through the treetops or winking shyly from the pitch-black understory.  As I stand, a firefly zips by my face exploding like a tiny flashbulb.

Crickets and frogs keep time with the pulse of the night and, later, dozens of coyotes in all directions create an exhilarating aural experience making it sound like the whole world is composed of nothing but coyotes and their haunting theories. Another thoroughly restful sleep ensues.

Crews continue working to bring Spruce Woods Park up to its standard before last summer’s flood. Today as I was pulling out I noticed the road to Spirit Sands was cut and a large culvert was being inserted under the road. The ditch along the highway is being worked to remove some of the flood cake that still coats parts of the park. Daily horse-drawn covered wagon rides to the dunes and punch bowl begin in July and summer nature programs are scheduled. So whether you are gathering sunlight or moonlight, the park’s numerous trails await your hiking boots and your curiosity. (Take water. Do a tick check.)

Two other things to mention about Spruce Woods:

  • Turkey Vultures: from my deck I saw several large black birds soaring high on the thermals when I arrived on Monday. I took them to be ravens due to their size. Later they soared lower and I saw they were turkey vultures with their stubby necks and bright red heads.  Abandoned farm buildings around the park make excellent nesting places. I also saw turkey vultures perched on the roof of the ruins of the Lyon’s mansion just outside Carberry north of the park. The old house would be a perfect site to raise their bulky young. I will keep an eye on both locations to see where they are actually nesting. I have blogged about turkey vultures and the Lyons house before;
  • Sundance: a large sign at the Epinette Creek turnoff pointed toward a sundance being held this week in the park. Sundance is a days-long ritual of sacrifice and transcendence where prayer, piercing and offerings of flesh open the path to personal healing. The public is welcome, however, please remember, no drugs, no alcohol at sundance. A step-by-step guide to the daily ceremonies for this particular sundance are here.

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Filed under Ancient Wisdom, Birds, Carberry, Day Tripping, Natural Places, Parks, spirit sands

Spruce Woods Park Rebounds, Open This Weekend

Reid Dickie

In this post a year ago the flooding Assiniboine River had a destructive hold on Spruce Woods Park. Hwy #5 was washed away through the park, campgrounds and buildings were covered with eight feet of water and the summer looked bleak.

Today I had my fourth hike to the Spirit Sands in the last two weeks and have great news to report. As I arrived today, a work crew was taking down the detour sign to the upper campground. That was exciting and promising! The low road to the campground, the one that had about two hundred yards of it washed away by the surging waters last year at this time, has been rebuilt with tons of fill and finished with gravel for now. The badly-damaged lower campground is still off-limits but the park staff are to be commended for their efforts to rejuvenate the rest of the park.

Most of the debris strewn helter skelter about the park by the river has been cleared away, signage has been restored, trails opened, the river-broken trees have been cleaned up and guaranteed there will be no shortage of firewood this summer in the park.

It was evident today that the day use area with beach, Pine Fort, picnic and displays will be open for the long weekend. They have resanded the beach on the oxbow. See how murky the water is before you swim in it. Use caution. Remember the swimming area is largely river water washed in last year containing everything it picked up along the way and it has sat stagnant.

There are plenty of things to do in the park. The trail system, including Spirit Sands, Punchbowl, Marsh Lake, Epinette Creek etc are all open. The covered wagon rides to the dunes and punchbowl are back this year but I’m not sure if they will be available for the long weekend. The upper campground is virtually sold out for the weekend, the yurts are booked solid all weekend.

I was heartened to see many western painted turtles sunning themselves on downed trees today along the edge of Marsh Lake. The turtles were disturbed by the sudden flood but have bounced back, even though the waters of Marsh Lake are still cloudy with mud. The floating bridge at the apex of Marsh Lake Trail has been replaced though the little island it accesses was devastated by the flood leaving mostly broken trees. Painted turtles can also be seen around the punchbowl.

Go for a hike. There are several different terrains and habitats to choose from. The trail on the way to Spirit Sands offers some lovely blossoms these days. The bearberry is turning from red to glossy green. Hoary puccoon (above) speckle the grass with its bright deep yellow flowers. Three-flowered aven (right), their hairy heads drooping sadly, add touches of mauve and rust to the speckle. I saw all kinds of butterflies on my hike today and the air was alive with the buzz of insects and sweet tweets from the trees. Abundant as ever in the shady areas and along the stairs is poison ivy. Barefoot hikers take heed.  The other danger is wood ticks and I recommend a thorough tick check of your whole body after a hike.

The weekend will be hot and hotter on the dunes by up to 10 degrees. Carry water, wear a hat and don’t wear stupid shoes. Maybe the cool evening suits you better. Take a sunset hike and hear a choir of coyotes echoing over the dunes as you watch the sand redden into black and the fireflies sparkle around you.

Remember: no more free parks this year. The three-year moratorium on park fees is over. Buy an annual pass for $30, save a lot of time and cash and relax. Canadian Tire and fishing/hunting stores sell the passes.

When you see the park staff, let them know they’ve done a great job getting Spruce Woods back on its feet so quickly. I look forward to my next twelve visits to it this summer.

Watch my video of a hike I took to Spirit Sands last year. Check out more Manitoba day trips on my Day Tripper page at the top. Have a wonderful weekend. Every mile a safe mile.

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Filed under Birds, Day Tripping, Earth Phenomena, Flood, Natural Places, Sacred Places, spirit sands

Stephen Harper Birds

Reid Dickie

In a previous post, I wrote about the Jerry Lewis Birds that inhabit my and my neighbour’s backyards. In fact, they are European starlings and come with an asinine genesis in North America. Having grown accustomed to the starling’s bizarre repertoire of trills, thrills and chills, mimicking cats, squeaky hinges and other birds with expert precision, their sudden absence this spring was obvious.

In their place, a flock of Stephen Harper Birds invaded my neighbourhood. These birds have shiny heads and cold yellow eyes.  They aggressively usurp the starlings’ nests, threaten smaller birds like the sparrows that nest in my neighbour’s birdhouses, en masse attack crows and other birds, dive at cats and squirrels and offer a boring repetitious song. Because I didn’t know what science calls these birds, their sinister appearance and unpredictable behaviour earned them the moniker Stephen Harper Birds.

Just as appropriately they are, in fact and by the bird book, common grackles. A lanky blackbird apparently, but when in flocks are noisy and aggressive. I noticed a pair of grackles building a large nest high up in a conical cedar tree in my backyard. I didn’t want these greedy belligerent birds in my life all summer so I applied some bird psychology. I know, how hard can it be to outsmart a bird? Read on…

In my decades I have come to understand that aggression understands aggression so, with that in mind, I tied a stout piece of rope about eight feet high up on the trunk of the cedar where the grackles nested and yanked on it vigourously. It caused the lean tree to sway wildly and the top section where the nest was to whiplash violently, sending the bird fluttering out of the nest. I started this mid afternoon and did it every two hours, always accompanied with wild growls, hisses and noises to add to the effect. During the day other grackles would come and croak away, defending the nest, I guess. But I kept it up until about two in the morning and the bird would fly out of the nest each time. I did this for two days, always with the strange noises. By the third day, the grackles had moved on.

I expected them to return and start nesting again but it hasn’t happened. I notice they have moved about a block west of here, apparently finding easier and more amenable nesting opportunities there. At least now that they have abandoned our backyards, the cats can peacefully snooze on the railings again, the sparrows sound much happier and the European starlings have reclaimed their nests. No more Stephen Harper Birds to defile the neighbourhood. (My apologies to common grackle lovers for the comparison to The Dark One.)

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Peregrine Falcons Nest in Downtown Winnipeg and Brandon

Another repost as the basic imperative spreads

Peregrine Falcons Nest on the Cliffs of Downtown Winnipeg

Following an alarming decline during the 1950s and 1960s, this spectacular falcon, also called the “Duck Hawk,” is on the increase again, now that DDT and other pesticides that caused thinning of eggshells have been banned. After an intensive program of rearing birds in captivity and releasing them in the wild (a process called “hacking”), this large falcon is reclaiming nesting grounds from which it disappeared a few decades ago. Although their habitat is mainly open country, especially along rivers and coasts and near lakes, a favorite nesting site nowadays is a tall building or bridge in a city. These urban Peregrines subsist mainly on pigeons. Since 1989, pairs of reintroduced Peregrines have nested high atop the Radisson Hotel on Portage Avenue in downtown Winnipeg. Characteristically, Peregrines return regularly to favourite nesting sites. One pair after another has used the same spot in England since 1243. Since 2006, CBC Manitoba has provided a falcon cam in the nest of the downtown birds. Soon the feeding frenzy will begin. Click pic to start live falcon cam.
The Peregrine Falcon has been the favourite of falconers for over 3,000 years, ever since the nomads of central Asia first pursued game with trained hawks and falcons. Extremely acute eyesight, even in dim light, allows falcons to be very effective hunters around dawn and dusk. Peregrines often migrate very rapidly between breeding and wintering areas, flying as much as 500 km per day. A female Peregrine that nested in Edmonton flew to Mazatlan, Mexico, in less than eight days and returned in six days. With the exception of Antarctica, New Zealand, and Iceland, the Peregrine is found around the globe. Twenty-two subspecies are recognized throughout the world. Their great powers of flight have enabled them to establish nesting populations in the Arctic, and as far south as Tasmania, South Africa, and the Falkland Islands. Peregrine Falcon Range Map Peregrines breed from Alaska and the Canadian Arctic south locally through the mountainous West, and sparingly in East. Winters coastally, north to British Columbia and Massachusetts. This post can also be found permanently on my Birdland page.

Peregrine Falcons Nesting in Brandon, Too!

When I posted the first story about the falcons in Winnipeg a few days ago, the Brandon cam wasn’t up and running. Today it is and what a great angle on the future festivities! The nest is situated high atop the McKenzie Seeds Building in downtown Brandon. There are two tabs along the top of the image, one for Winnipeg nest, one for Brandon nest. Click pic for both cams.

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Stunning Video: The Hidden Beauty of Pollination

Watch hummingbirds, bees, butterflies and bats “at work” in this beautiful creation by Louie Schwartzberg. Click any picture to start.

 

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The Party of Peacocks of Souris

Reid Dickie

Last year’s flooding of the Souris River valley displaced the party of peacocks and peahens that are a distinctive attraction in Souris, MB. Normally the peacocks live in a bird sanctuary in the valley but last summer they freely roamed the little town, enthralling people with their lush displays of tailfeathers and startling cries. They spent most of the mild winter on the lam in the town, finding shelter in various backyards. According to the Souris Plaindealer, the two dozen birds have been rounded up, corraled and relocated to a farm outside of town. When flood damages to the bird sanctuary are repaired, the birds will be returned to the valley. Watch my short video report on the peacocks of Souris which I shot at the height of last year’s flood.

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Tree Birds Dog Trucks Dead

Reid Dickie

In the cemetery of the church yard around St. Francois Xavier Roman Catholic Church in St. Francois Xavier, MB stands a huge tree, once magnificent in every season, now dead every day. On its naked branches, some entangled in the church steeple, European starlings gather to discuss important bird business. In the neighbourhood, Rover barks at imaginery foes, halftons roll past one by one and the dead are patient, as ever. Click the pic to watch my latest video, Tree Birds Dog Trucks Dead.

UPDATE: As of summer 2013, the tree has been cut down, just a low stump remains.

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Filed under Birds, Churches, Critters, Day Tripping, Life and Life Only, Spirit, Video

Owl in Super Slow Motion!!

Click the pic to watch something amazing!!

 

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What is a murmuration?

Thousands of starlings wheeling en masse in the air is called a murmuration. Click the picture to watch an amazing video of a huge murmuration on River Shannon in Ireland. In an article called Jerry Lewis Birds, I write about the European starlings that live in my neighbourhood.

 

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Seagull Steals Go Pro

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Obliging

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Peregrine Falcons Nesting in Brandon, Too!

When I posted the first story about the falcons in Winnipeg a few days ago, the Brandon cam wasn’t up and running. Today it is and what a great angle on the future festivities! The nest is situated high atop the McKenzie Seeds Building in downtown Brandon. There are two tabs along the top of the image, one for Winnipeg nest, one for Brandon nest. Click pic for both cams.

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Filed under Birds, Natural Places, Winnipeg

Peregrine Falcons Nest on the Cliffs of Downtown Winnipeg

Following an alarming decline during the 1950s and 1960s, this spectacular falcon, also called the “Duck Hawk,” is on the increase again, now that DDT and other pesticides that caused thinning of eggshells have been banned. After an intensive program of rearing birds in captivity and releasing them in the wild (a process called “hacking”), this large falcon is reclaiming nesting grounds from which it disappeared a few decades ago. Although their habitat is mainly open country, especially along rivers and coasts and near lakes, a favorite nesting site nowadays is a tall building or bridge in a city. These urban Peregrines subsist mainly on pigeons.

Since 1989, pairs of reintroduced Peregrines have nested high atop the Radisson Hotel on Portage Avenue in downtown Winnipeg. Characteristically, Peregrines return regularly to favourite nesting sites. One pair after another has used the same spot in England since 1243. Since 2006, CBC Manitoba has provided a falcon cam in the nest of the downtown birds. This year, the chicks have just hatched so the feeding frenzies now begin. Click pic to start live falcon cam.

The Peregrine Falcon has been the favourite of falconers for over 3,000 years, ever since the nomads of central Asia first pursued game with trained hawks and falcons. Extremely acute eyesight, even in dim light, allows falcons to be very effective hunters around dawn and dusk.

Peregrines often migrate very rapidly between breeding and wintering areas, flying as much as 500 km per day. A female Peregrine that nested in Edmonton flew to Mazatlan, Mexico, in less than eight days and returned in six days.

With the exception of Antarctica, New Zealand, and Iceland, the Peregrine is found around the globe. Twenty-two subspecies are recognized throughout the world. Their great powers of flight have enabled them to establish nesting populations in the Arctic, and as far south as Tasmania, South Africa, and the Falkland Islands.

Peregrine Falcon Range Map

Peregrines breed from Alaska and the Canadian Arctic south locally through the mountainous West, and sparingly in East. Winters coastally, north to British Columbia and Massachusetts.

This post can also be found permanently on my Birdland page.

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Sacred Raptor

Reid Dickie

             As I walked up the easy incline toward the Turtle Effigy in southern Saskatchewan, overhead I heard familiar prairie music – the piercing screech of Red-Tailed Hawk. The bird had followed me from Wild Man Butte, half an hour away, or so it seemed, and would meet me again at the Herschel Petroglyphs, hundreds of miles away. As I prayed amid the stones on that serene hilltop, Red-Tailed Hawk hunted up and down the surrounding ravines.

            I have encountered this beautiful creature at sacred sites all over the prairies. The call of Red-Tailed Hawk punctuates the vast loneliness of wide-open spaces with its desperate, even crazy edge, a shrill urgency meant to frighten small timorous critters from the safety of grass nests to become hawk breakfasts. Hear it.

            To the south of Turtle Effigy, the plains roll away toward Big Muddy Lake, usually a shallow, white-rimmed affair. In a bluff down the hill, an uneven nest of sticks built near the swaying top of a huge cottonwood indicates the home of Red-Tailed Hawk. Nests like these abound from Alaska to Panama. A successful bird, Red-Tailed Hawk is the most abundant hawk in North America and the largest, the female a third bigger than the male. The bird’s size caused ancient inhabitants to call it Red Eagle.                                                                                                      

            Red-Tailed Hawk, of the genus buteo (pronounced ‘beauty-o’), comes in a striking array of colour combinations. The consistent feature is the rufous-coloured tail, redder on top, pinkish underneath.

            I have watched Red-Tailed Hawk’s skillful hunting and heard the melancholy cries at buffalo pounds, turtle effigies, burial mounds, snake pits and petroglyphs all across the southern prairies. If it is hunting in a valley, I may never see the bird but only hear its cries. Their numbers make them ubiquitous out here. Extremely rare in cities, they prefer lonesome expansive grasslands or rich marshes.

            A special encounter with sacred Red-Tailed Hawk occurred in an unlikely place. A few days before my double-bypass heart surgery in June 2002, with my prayer circle and spirit friends in place, I was taking a walk down our elm-shaded streets when I heard the distinctive sharp cry of Red-Tailed Hawk! In the middle of the city! It was clear and recognizable in the midday din.

            The sound of the hawk immediately transported me back to the sacred sites I’ve come to know over the years. I recalled the helpful local spirits at these places and realized, since I have a familiarity with them, they would be an important part of my healing.

            I don’t know what made the sound of Red-Tailed Hawk in the middle of the city – I didn’t see the bird, only heard its cry. Whatever it was, it reminded me of the places and the powers I have encountered, how they manifested in my life on the verge of surgery and how they could play a role in my healing afterwards.

            Thank you for reminding me Red-Tailed Hawk.

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Vultures of St. Victor

Reid Dickie

            Above and south of the tiny village of St Victor in southern Saskatchewan a row of naked sandstone outcrops protrude over the Sylvan Valley. The view from the place is spectacular. To the north Montague Lake is a blue dash among yellow and green fields checked with black summer fallow. To the west is Twelve Mile Lake; in the east is Willow Bunch Lake. These lakes are the remnants of a huge drainage channel that icy torrents of glacial meltwater dug from the prairie as the latest Ice Age ended. They extend east to include Big Muddy Lake and the surrounding badlands, finally to meet the Missouri River and flow to the sea.

            Etched into the top of one of the sandstone promontories is a variety of petroglyphs, images hand carved in the stone. Turtles, human faces, grizzly paws with long claws, human hands and feet, buffalo, elk and deer tracks with dewclaws, carved into the horizontal sandstone surface. Near the outer edge of the stone, there are carvings of two human feet aligned so the next step would be into thin air. Or perhaps onto the ice. It is possible this was an unglaciated area during the last Ice Age and the ice abutted this cliff. See Sacred Places page for complete report on this site.

             St Victor is one of the stops on my annual pilgrimage into the Saskatchewan holy land, a tour of ancient sacred sites, geographical anomalies and interesting “feeling” places that runs parallel to the Canada-US border. This is my fourth visit here. The tour begins in southern Manitoba at several burial mounds. In Saskatchewan it includes human effigies, turtle and buffalo effigies, the petroglyphs, a medicine wheel in Grasslands National Park, a ceremonial site near Val Marie, and the “mystery rocks” south of Cypress Hills Provincial Park to name a few of the places created by ancient peoples.

            It’s a hot day at the end of July 1998. I turned south out of St. Victor for the short drive up the steep side of the valley to the parking lot and noticed a huge dark bird circling slowly on the updrafts. I park below the sandstone cliff where the petroglyphs are.

            At the base of this outcrop, there is dense and rich forest with plenty of game. There is also a large source of red ochre. Sitting in a small pasture to the east of the road to the site, there is a large boulder bleeding red onto the ground. This would have been a strong attraction. Red ochre was used ceremonially, to “embalm” the dead and as an insect repellant.

            A short hike through a cool forest and 165 wooden stairs that wend their way up the face of the cliff gives you access to the site. The layers of stone you pass as you ascend reveal the area’s geological history. In the soft sandstone, deep tunnels have been eroded smooth by centuries of water and wind. The hen scratchings in the stone by modern visitors are lame imitations of the sublime carvings at the top.

            I get to the first landing and from above hear a sudden gruff gurgling sound. Looking up I saw a large black bird perched on a jutting rock near the top of the climb. It had naked red skin over its small head and neck, a large, cruelly hooked beak, its neck curved into a hunched black body that suggests vulture. It ruffles its feathers in a mildly threatening manner and makes the strange gurgle again as I climb the stairs. I thought the petroglyphs must have acquired a guardian spirit. A few more steps I see what the bird is guarding.

            Two almost-grown chicks stand a few meters inside a deep rock crevice. As big as adult chickens they are mostly covered with white down, their wings blackening. The parent bird takes flight as I approach and silently performs aerial ballet for the duration of my stay. Eyeing me with suspicion the chicks retreat deeper into the crevice as I pass by. When I come back down the stairs, I don’t see them at all.

            It is my first encounter with a turkey vulture, not uncommon on the prairies but this would be close to the northern limits of its habitat. A big bird, the turkey buzzard can have a wingspan of two meters. It is a carrion eater living mainly on dead and decaying flesh and finds suitable habitat from southern Canada to the Strait of Magellan. Turkey vultures are voiceless birds which accounts for the attention-getting gurgle. Though its sharp talons and curved beak suggest killing ability, they do not possess enough strength, thus the reliance on scavenging dead and decaying meat supplemented by some vegetation. Day flyers, turkey vultures have keen senses and locate food by sight and an acute sense of smell. The turkey vultures play an important role in cleaning up carcasses. Their digestive juices are so strong that no virus or bacteria can survive.

            The natural gas industry has found an interesting use for the keen sense of smell of turkey vultures. Since natural gas is odourless, a chemical, ethyl mercaptan, is added. This chemical, also produced by decaying meat, attracts turkey vultures to leaks in gas pipelines.

            If cornered, turkey vultures have two ways to defend themselves. They will suddenly roll over and play dead. Sometimes they will eject a foul-smelling vomit at their foe. Turkey vultures are among the most graceful soaring birds in the world. With the silvery lining under their wings glinting in the sun, they can glide on thermals for hours. During these long soars, the wings are held in a distinctive V shape and seldom flapped.

            Turkey vultures are not averse to being around people. They seem to enjoy us. There have been occasions when turkey vultures “adopt” a person such as the woman in California who walked her dog in a certain place each day accompanied overhead by a turkey vulture. When she was unable to walk her dog due to a broken leg, the turkey vulture found her home in a town of 12,000 people and welcomed her one morning from her backyard tree.

            Two chicks, such as the brood I encountered in the eroded sandstone, are typical. No nest is built. Instead, they lay their eggs on a rock ledge, in a cave, hollow tree or barn with several generations returning to the same spot to roost and procreate. Turkey vultures cooperate with each other in supplying food and roosting spots. They are clean birds that spend several hours each day preening themselves. Turkey vultures migrate south near the autumnal equinox.

            Since turkey vultures often return to nest in the same place, it is likely that whoever came to carve on the stone here long ago also encountered turkey vultures, watching them hover in the air, afloat on the rising thermals. 

            The layout of the site in 2011 is very different from what I just described. The wooden stairs are gone completely, destroyed in a windstorm. Access is now gained by a prairie road up the hillside. The site is approached from the rear. Limiting access is attempted by a chain link fence between viewer and site. Though I didn’t see any nesting birds in 2010, when they do return they will have privacy and protection from humans now that the staircase has been removed.

(This article can also be found on my Birdland page.)

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The Whole Song Birds of North America Book Now in Birdland

         I wrote about my old collector card bird book a few weeks ago and the response to Birdland has been amazing! I decided to post the entire bird book including front, back and inside covers, sixteen pages of information and all 48 full-colour collector cards. You can find it all on my Birdland page. Here are three sample pages from the book. Tweet this!

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Cedar Waxwings in Brandon

          It was a strange April day in Manitoba: temperatures around 30 degrees C and clear blue skies all weekend long.  I was staying with my cousin, Duncan, in the east end of Brandon. On the day I arrived, Duncan pointed out an ornamental cherry tree in his neighbour’s backyard that was loaded with shriveled red cherries. Unfit for human consumption, the cherries are a delicacy of certain birds that, according to Duncan, each spring swarm the tree and feast on the cherries, now sweetened by winter’s freezing and thawing.

            The next morning, as if induced by my cousin’s comment, the tree was alive with cedar waxwings. Famished from their long migration, the waxwings cover the tree and the ground below, ravenously eating the cherries. A flock of birds flies up from the ground into the branches and the ones from the tree swarm to the ground, excited birds, appetites whetted, blissful on a hot strange spring day.

 

            The air was vibrating with the shrill keening of the waxwings. Several large still-bare nearby trees were decorated with more cedar waxwings waiting to feed, hundreds of birds in all. Flock after flock dined at the cherry tree.

            Several curious species – robins, blue jays and starlings – arrived to see what all the commotion was about. These birds prefer feeders and worms to cherries but waxwing enthusiasm was contagious.  The feeding frenzy went on most of the morning then the flock was gone, the air still, quiet, hot.

            In a few weeks, the cherry tree will be smothered in tiny white and pink blossoms that perfume the air with a sweet smell. By then subsequent flocks will have stripped all the cherries from the tree.

            Cedar waxwings have the ability to digest a variety of berries, some of which are poisonous to humans. Gorging themselves for hours, waxwings have been known to get a little drunk if the berries have fermented.

            A sleek, beautiful creature, cedar waxwings are strikingly identifiable: the brown topnotch crest and breast with grey wings and tail, the yellow wash over the belly, the dark eye mask and throat marking, the yellow tail tip and the distinctive waxy red drops on the wings with give the birds their name. The females are somewhat plainer. Cedar waxwings are one of the few birds whose numbers are increasing in North America.

            Coniferous trees are favoured places to build their sling nests. Chicks are born late to ensure a supply of berries and bugs for their growth. I remember seeing waxwings as a kid in western Manitoba. Apparently they abound in Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg but I haven’t seen one in our neighbourhood for years. The last time I saw one was a few years ago at Last Mountain Lake in Saskatchewan. I was camping next to the bird sanctuary and saw a nesting pair.

            What a hopeful sign it was to see a huge flock of excited birds so eager to fulfill their biological imperative. I had begun to wonder if there were large flocks of any birds remaining. It was good to see an old friend return with such vigor.

 August 6/02

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