Archive for March, 2009


Groundhog Day is celebrated on February 2nd, but no self-respecting groundhog would be seen above ground at that time of the year. Groundhogs (Marmota monax), also know as woodchucks, are true hibernators. They settle down for their long winter’s nap around October and don’t reappear until the time of new plant growth is near. On Saturday, a movement caught my eye when I chanced to glance out the window and I was surprised to see this groundhog investigating the yard. Groundhogs are most commonly seen close to their burrows, ready to make a quick dive for safety should danger arise. This fellow, or maybe it was a female, was actively reconnoitring the area. After making a large circuit of the yard, the groundhog headed off along the river, galloping more quickly than I would have credited likely for such a sturdy body.


Groundhogs are large rodents. Their strong front teeth, like those of beavers, never stop growing, (except during hibernation), and they keep them trimmed by gnawing. They have powerful claws and are major hole diggers. Their burrows usually include a main entrance and one or more spy-holes for safety. A nest chamber, for sleeping, hibernating and raising young, is padded with dried grasses. A separate chamber serves as a toilet area. Groundhog burrows are a source of homes for other animals such as rabbits, skunks and snakes.


Young groundhogs are born around May. Litters usually number 4 or 5 young, who are born blind and helpless. By 28 days their eyes are open and they are covered with short hair. They begin to emerge from the burrow at about 6 weeks of age as they are weaned onto the groundhog’s vegetarian diet of wild plants and grasses. Their mother continues to watch over them and protect them as they grow. In the fall, older groundhogs usually enter hibernation first, the youngsters perhaps needing long to build up their fat level. The body temperature of a hibernating groundhog may drop to 3° C and the heartrate lowers from about 80 beats per minute to just 4 or 5.


Groundhogs are occasionaly melanistic (black) or albino. Ontario’s most famous groundhog is Wiarton Willie, an albino prognosticator seen here in CBC coverage of Groundhog Day, 2009.


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Your loving Anna: Letters from the Ontario Frontier by Louis Tivy. University of Toronto Press, 1972.

David Leveridge and his wife Anna enjoyed a reasonably comfortable life in Norwich, England, where he worked as a farm overseer. However, after a “friend” bolted and left David to cover the loan he had guaranteed, their lives were shattered. David chose to make a new start in Canada. He left his pregnant wife and six young children behind and set out to establish a place for his family in a new land. A year later, in 1883, Anna and the family joined him where he was living south of Coe Hill, Ontario. They finally settled on 100 acres north of Coe Hill, in Wollaston Township. Your loving Anna was written by Anna’s grandson and combines his own text with Anna’s story as she wrote it in letters sent to her parents and family in England. A number of the letters were saved and returned to Canada, and now rest in the Trent University archives.

The tone of Anna’s letters is uncomplaining, but Anna certainly had much she could have complained about! She managed without her husband for a year, giving birth to their 7th child along the way, and traveled with a baby and six children under the age of 11 across an ocean to a new country, where the family subsequently lived in a one-room backwoods shanty of 12 by 20 feet for the next decade!

Her letters include bits of gossip such as people might indulge in now (“…was old enough to be her grandfather. He is dead and she is married again, a Canadian, a drinking man. Her first family will not have much to say to him…,); talk of the weather (it snowed on May 16, 1883!); and bits of community news. They also form a fascinating record of their daily lives, offering details such as what they planted in their new garden (a surprisingly modern selection including tomatoes and watermelon) and the fabrics she used to sew clothes.

The letters also illustrate how attitudes and expectations have changed. Anna comments on the multinational nature of her neighbours: Irish, Scotch, French and English! When neighbours request that she speak at the funeral of their child, she defers to a male acquaintance. Children grew up quickly. Of her 14 and 15 year old sons, she notes: “The boys are well and busy most of the time. Their Father lets them have a half day sometimes….” No ipods and video games there!

Perhaps the biggest change in attitudes is found in views on money. Anna and her husband paid $50 of the $100 cost of their farmland when they purchased it. In one letter, Anna writes “…bushels of raspberries are ripening all around…. I shall not be able to make the preserve I did last year for the want of sugar (we have had to do without all except necessaries, to keep out of debt…). No maxed out credit cards or minimum down-payment mortgage here.

Anna and David’s story is also the story of Coe Hill and the surrounding area. The high hopes that were held for the Coe Hill iron mine were soon dashed. The farmland, claimed at the expense of ancient white pine forest, was soon exhausted of its nutrients and pioneers were left with stony, infertile ground. I found it amazing that so little consideration and planning seemed to go into the choice of Coe Hill as the Leveridge’s pioneer home. The decision chained both them and another generation to years of hard work with minimal returns. It was also surprising to read of such a rugged pioneer experience here in Ontario on the verge of the 20th century. The famous Susanna Moodie had written of similar experiences, not so very far south of Coe Hill, 5 decades earlier, which she recorded in her book Roughing It in the Bush in 1852.

One of the magazines Anna enjoyed receiving from her English relatives.

One of the magazines Anna enjoyed receiving from her English relatives.

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Who goes there?


When walking down to the forest, I noticed this bird flitting about the hedge row. I couldn’t get a good look at him, but it was easy to identify him by his voice. A song sparrow! Even his scientific name speaks of song: Melospiza melodia. Song sparrow songs vary, but the opening of the song is easy to recognize, two to four short notes, followed by a complex melody. The opening notes are sometimes represented phonetically as “Sweet! sweet! sweet!” A more imaginative take on the song is “Please! please! please! Put on the tea kettle – ettle- ettle!” You can listen to a version of the song at the Whatbird.com site. For a different version, listen to this USGS Patuxent Bird Identifier recording.

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Goose Spa

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Wiregrass Czarina is a purebred Arabian mare. She joined us 4 years ago this summer and will be 19 years old this spring. She is very handsome and very well-bred. You can see her pedigree here. Most of the time, she is very sweet. She nickers hello to me in the morning. She likes to go riding (as long as you’re not near the road; cars frighten her). She loves carrots and treats and is absolutely devoted to her buddies Louis and Mousie. But when it comes to visits from vets, blacksmiths, or other unwanted administrations, she is defiant and very difficult to work with. Aging has yet to mellow her!

Ponygirl rescued Czarina from a Kitchener stockyard auction, where she stopped in while waiting for her laundry to finish at the laundromat. (Yeah, I thought that was odd too.) It became clear that somewhere along the way, Czarina’s life had gone off the rails. We don’t know what her story is. Perhaps she was abused, or perhaps her strong will just clashed with that of a previous owner and led to her defiant behaviour. In any case, landing at the Kitchener stockyards isn’t usually a good thing for a horse. Ontario is the horsemeat capital of North America.

There are simply too many unwanted horses. In the U.S., a ban on horse slaughter has led to new problems with maintaining unwanted horses. Horse rescue organizations such as Heaven Can Wait are often working at capacity with minimal funds. Horsekeeping requires a longterm commitment, as horses often live to be 25 to 30 years old. If you are only interested in showing or riding a young up-and-coming competitor, what is to become of your partner as he ages? Responsible horse ownership doesn’t end when the horse loses his competitive edge.

There are many sources of unwanted horses. The standardbred racing industry produces many cast-offs and has spawned the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society. The premarin industy produces many foals every year, although the popularity of premarin is now waning. An aging babyboomer population may also be a contributing factor as older owners can no longer afford to maintain or are forced by ill health to part with their horse. Czarina, at least, is enjoying her senior years.


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Hooded Merganser pair

Hooded Merganser pair

The south branch of the South Nation river runs by the back door of Willow House. In the morning, I can lean on the kitchen counter and gaze out the window as I wait for my coffee to brew. The river is always interesting, but since the ice melted off, an assortment of waterfowl have been stopping by, causing me to rush for my camera. The above pair of Hooded Mergansers (Lophodytes cucullatus), shown near the beaver lodge, were very camera shy, swimming rapidly away or taking flight as soon as they caught sight of me.

Canada geese

Canada geese

This pair of Canada geese (Branta canadensis), who spent the afternoon enjoying the sun at the edge of the river, were more co-operative, though still wary.

Wood Ducks

Wood ducks

Three pairs of Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) floated by and then paddled back up stream.

Mallard pair

Mallard pair

A Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and his missus spent a few hours grooming themselves on the shore.


Common Grackles

Passerines (songbirds) such as these Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) also use the river to bathe and drink.

At the end of the day, the river and its occupants settle down … or start their busy night’s activity … as the sun sets.
*Creedence Clearwater Revival: Lookin’ Out My Back Door


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I went for a walk in the forest in search of new green vegetation. It is still a bit early, and for the most part, the forest still looks at rest. When I glanced down at this rock, however, I noticed bright red dots. On closer examination, I found there was an entire garden of moss and lichens covering the rock’s surface.


A bug’s eye view reveals a lilliputian world of vivid forms and colours, greens, yellows, silver and even bright red. The red dots are the tips of British Soldier lichen (Cladonia cristatella). A lichen is actually two organisms, an alga and a fungus, living in very close association. The algal component manufactures food via photosynthesis, while the fungus absorbs moisture and minerals. Most of the visible body of the lichen is made up of the fungus, with the alga forming a thin layer just below the fungus surface.


Lichens are ancient organisms that first appeared on the planet about 225 million years ago. Lichens usually grow on nutrient-poor surfaces, limiting their rate of growth. They are widespread, but are sensitive to air pollution. Thus, an absence of lichens can be an indicator of poor air quality. A second cladonia species was represented in the rock garden by pixie cup lichen (Cladonia chlorophaea). Pixie cup and British soldier lichens are fruticose growth forms. Of the three lichen forms, crustose, foliose and fruticose, the fruticose lichens are the most sensitive to air pollution and are the first to disappear as air becomes more polluted in an area.


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Common redpolls beneath the niger feeder

Common redpolls (Carduelis flammea) beneath the niger feeder

Although Common Redpolls (Carduelis flammea) , winter visitors here in sunny eastern Ontario, are beginning their return to the far north for the breeding season, there is still a large flock of redpolls patronizing the niger feeder. It is usual to see a few Pine Siskins (Carduelis pinus) hanging out with the redpolls. Siskins, dressed in a demure brown-streaked feather coat, have a small patch of pale yellow on their wings at the base of their flight feathers. The yellow is generally muted and inconspicuous. Recently, siskins with a much more eye-catching yellow have been showing up at the feeder.


The yellower siskins may be migrants passing through, heading north from a winter range farther south. These siskins are termed “green-morph” and only about 1% of adult males show this coloration. More information about these uncommon birds is available over at the Stokes website.


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Beaver Tales by Audrey Tournay. Boston Mills Press, 2003
Beavers Eh to Bea by Lil Anderson. Turnstone Press, 2000.

In 1972, Audrey Tournay, a high school teacher, purchased a derelict farm in the Muskoka region of Ontario, unaware that she was establishing what would one day become the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. It began with an orphaned raccoon, and over the years that followed, many other orphans and accident victims arrived at the Sanctuary. But Tournay’s favorites were the beavers. Beaver Tales tells the story of the Sanctuary and of some of the beavers Tournay has cared for and loved. That Tournay is no ordinary person is evident in this passage about living with a beaver in the house:

Witness the “arches” in my house. They are not the smoothly fashioned golden arches familiar on every continent the world around, but they are far more interesting. Each one is unique, carved personally by a beaver. The first arch was at the front door. Though doors may shut out dogs, cats, wolves, bears, even humans, to a beaver wooden doors are a mere temporary impediment. A beaver can chisel an archway at the bottom of a door – an archway large enough to let his fat self through – in about twenty minutes. … I covered the lower two feet of the [front] door with tin. … it did deter the beaver for a few days. Then, with strong teeth and dextrous hands, he simply removed it. … it became necessary to replace the wooden door with a modern door of steel. But the other arches, for the most part, remain.

The Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary has grown over the years. Looking after wildlife is an expensive undertaking and donations are always welcomed. You can also visit the Sanctuary. For details, visit the Sanctuary’s website.


Beaver lodge, March 2009, near Willow House

Beavers have suffered incredibly at the hands of humans. The Canadian nickel features a beaver, not because we admire these mammals but because Canada was built on the backs of beavers, trapped by the millions for the fur trade. Today, beavers are still trapped, but as human civilization encroaches ever more into beaver territory, beavers also suffer from displacement and death through habitat destruction, traffic accidents and other confrontations with “progress”. Wildlife rehabilitator Lil Anderson’s book, Beavers Eh to Bea, tells the story of her experience with two beaver kits near Kenora, Ontario. Anderson’s story is filled with interesting details about beaver life. One passage I enjoyed tells of her effort to find a food to replace difficult-to-procure water lily bulbs:

Obviously, because of the difficulty in getting lily roots, I had to find a more readily accessible but nutritious substitute. Not relishing the thought, I decided I would have to taste the lily root to see if I could match the taste with some “human” food. After swilling the aftertaste of mud out of my mouth, I noted a taste not unlike that of boiled potatoes, except maybe sweeter. Chunks of boiled potatoes dipped in yogurt – and sometimes whipping cream for added calcium – were big sellers that Bea would chose even over lily roots. When the kits switched to more solid food, raw yams became an important supplement to their diets.

Beaver swimming behind Willow House, Fall 2008

Beaver swimming behind Willow House, Fall 2008

Both Tournay and Anderson speak of the joy of animals. Of a newly release young deer, Anderson writes:

He would race up to us with a look that could only be described as pure and absolute joy, prance in front of us, and then race off and around and around again.

Tournay expands on this with:

Rarely, from the lofty heights from which we humans observe creatures, do we see beyond the patterns of their lives to the joy that they often know. That animals can know joy may not be more than mere speculation, of course, but it’s consistent with my experience with animals. … Taking walks with raccoons, I have tried to see the world through their eyes – bouncing, happy creatures who scuttle beneath the shady undergrowth and then scamper up to the sun-speckled tree tops. I have watched the quiver of excitement of skunks moving among mossy stones. And I have swum in the pond with beavers and seen them swirl and dive and stretch their sleek bodies in the pure ecstasy of the moment.

For more information about beavers and some great photographs, visit Naturespeak: The Master of Castor.

The beaver lodge in winter, January 2009.

The beaver lodge in winter, January 2009.

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Beautiful Workhorse

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