Archive for March, 2010

The bright yellow of daffodils is synonymous with Spring, and the daffodils in my garden are working hard on making their appearance. It will still be a week or two yet before there are any yellow heads. However, this past weekend, there were daffodils aplenty on sale as the Canadian Cancer Society celebrated their annual fundraiser, Daffodil Days. Last year, daffodil sales raised nearly $3 million in Ontario. I brought home a bouquet of tightly-closed buds and within hours they had opened into a show of brilliant spring yellow.

If spring and daffodils are synonymous, daffodils and Wordsworth are also forever linked. Here is William’s famous poem:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling leaves in glee;
A poet could not be but gay,
In such a jocund company!
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

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Some of the returning Canada Geese settle on the little river for a break on the journey north. You can see them along the length of the river where the road parallels its meandering course. Many form flotillas on the water, while others pad about the adjacent farm pastures.

Ducks have begun to arrive too. I saw a pair of Buffleheads (Bucephala albeola) a few days ago, but they didn’t stick around to have their picture taken. They are small ducks and the male has a conspicuous white wedge at the back of his dark head, which makes him easy to identify. More common are the Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos). There are often several pairs to be seen.

The Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) are my favorites. Until last spring, I hadn’t seen any in the wild. The males, with their elegant colouring, are certainly amongst the most beautiful of ducks.

None of the ducks seem to stay into the nesting season, but move on to better habitat. I would like to try mounting a Wood Duck nesting box, a project for next year maybe, although I’m not sure their is sufficient appropriate habitat by the river to allow a pair to raise a family there.

It’s nice to see the ducks, but on Monday I saw a real favorite: the first Great Blue Heron (Ardia herodias) of the year! Apparently he wasn’t as happy to see me as I was to see him, and took off before I was able to get more than one ghostly photograph. But that’s okay. Unlike the ducks, the heron is probably here to stay.

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Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis by Alanna Mitchell. McClelland & Stewart, 2009.

Overfishing isn’t the only problem facing the world ocean. Alanna Mitchell spent two and a half years travelling the globe as an investigative journalist in a quest to examine the state of the seas. Sea Sick is an account of her journey as she discovers first hand what scientists are learning. Each of the ten chapters in Sea Sick takes Mitchell to a different part of the globe, where she joins scientists on the front lines as they study how the ocean is changing.

In Australia, she snorkels over the Great Barrier Reef and talks to Katharina Fabricius on Magnetic Island about reefs and their future. Climate change has three direct effects on corals. First, the high concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere warms the ocean to the point that the coral’s symbiotic algae die and result in coral bleaching. Second, climate change will potentially raise sea levels, depressing the ability of coral algae to photosynthesize and, in effect, drowning the corals. Third, the acidification of the ocean that results from increasing carbon dioxide levels inhibits the availability of calcium, which in turn depresses the ability of coral to build structures. If acidity levels climb high enough, coral structures will be corroded by the acidic water. Coral reefs are often compared to the rainforests of the sea. They are centers of diversity. And they are dying.

In the Gulf of Mexico, Mitchell joins a ten-day expedition with scientists investigating the 17,000 square kilometre dead zone that forms at the delta of the Mississippi River. The dead zone is an area of low or no oxygen where virtually nothing can survive. The Gulf dead zone is related to the runoff of agricultural chemicals from land all along the mighty Mississippi River. Plankton gobble up the phosphorus and nitrogen that the river dumps into the Gulf, reproduce rapidly and then die and fall to the bottom of the Gulf. Bacteria then eat the plankton and decompose, using up all the oxygen in the water. The ability of the Gulf waters to handle all the extra phosphorus and nitrogen that pores into it with the river has failed. The dead zone is a result. The Gulf dead zone is one of 407 around the world. The number of dead zones has doubled each decade since 1960.

In other chapters, Mitchell takes the reader with her to Puerto Rico, Plymouth, England, Panama, Halifax, Spain, China and Zanzibar as she pursues the latest in ocean research. In an interview on CBC’s Last Chapter, Mitchell talks about her experience. As a result of her investigation, Mitchell fell into a clinical depression and was bedridden for a month.

It’s not a happy picture, but it is vitally important that we understand that carbon emissions and global warming effect more than the continents. The very oceans, unimaginably huge, are being changed by our actions. We are running out of time if we wish to salvage the oceans, and indeed the planet, for future generations.

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Weathervane, Byward Market

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Amaryllis Grand Cru

Red Velvet

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One of the most positive things about the Copenhagen climate change conference was how much attention it garnered on the world stage.  The 4th Annual Earth Hour offers another opportunity for citizens of the world to tell politicians everywhere that it is time to act.  We need positive action, not more excuses. Drop by the World Wildlife Fund website for Earth Hour Central.

It is getting harder and harder for old-style do-nothing politicians such as Stephen Harper to hide from mounting public concern. Canadians are bombarded with the government’s braggadocio TV commercials daily, telling us how “Canada’s Economic Action Plan” is helping all Canadians. Recently, the Fraser Institute, a conservative Vancouver-based think-tank weighed in, observing that the federal government’s spending spree has done little but throw Canadians collectively deeper into debt.

In a comparison of “green” or “environmentally-friendly” stimulus spending by G20 countries, Canada ranks near the bottom of the list, with a tiny 8% of stimulus spending devoted to green initiatives. Compare that to the action of more forward-thinking countries such as South Korea, where the investment of 79% of stimulus money in green projects will pay dividends to Korean citizens in the future. Mr. Harper, Canadians deserve responsible spending today to ensure a better future tomorrow.

Greenpeace billboard

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Last spring, when I went looking for houses for Tree Swallows, I was only able to find boxes meant to accommodate Eastern Bluebirds. While the entrance hole, at 1 1/2 inches, is big enough for Tree Swallows, the interior of the box is rather small, with the floor measuring just 4 1/2 x 3 inches. Once again I vowed, as I do every year, that I would build a better box myself over the winter. Finally, this year I actually got organized and have turned out 7 Tree Swallow boxes.

I came across a simple bird box pattern last summer on a visit to the Upper Canada Migratory Bird Sanctuary. At the little park store, I was lucky enough to meet one of the program coordinators who helps boy scouts and other participants build bird houses and I was able to purchase one of their ready-to-assemble houses. If you follow the link to my Sanctuary visit entry you will see one of their houses situated to the left of the park store door in the second photo. It was housing a Tree Swallow family at the time of my visit and the parents were busy, coming and going, keeping the youngsters fed, so I knew the box was Tree Swallow-approved.

The pattern is quite simple, and thus appropriate for someone with my modest carpentry skills. There are 6 pieces. The back, front and bottom are cut from 1 x 6 pine and the two sides and the roof are cut from 1 x 8 pine. I used rough-one-side lumber for a more natural interior. I read that Tree Swallow boxes should have a floor space of at least 5 inches square, and the interior measurement of these boxes is 5 1/2 inches square. I think the swallows and their brood should be comfortable. They went together quickly, and I was anxious to try one out. I carried a ladder out to last year’s Bluebird house and unscrewed it from the post. Then I mounted the new box.

I have another couple of houses to swap out with the new ones, but just did the one today because it was cool and blustery. The next nice day, I’ll change the others. I’ll also have to get additional poles to mount all the houses. Below, you can see the old box and a new box, side by side. I’m looking forward to the return of the swallows. I hope they will be as pleased with the new boxes as I am!

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Greenpeace Billboard, Halifax

Read about the Greenpeace campaign here.

Read about the Atheist Bus Campaign here.

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Surely one of the most common forms of seafood enjoyed in North America must be canned tuna. Many a kitchen pantry is stocked with a can or two, handy for quick, nutritious sandwiches or a simple casserole. The tuna in many cans is Skipjack, a fish that grows up to 3 feet long. Skipjacks live a short life, have a high reproduction rate and a high natural mortality rate, and is a pretty good choice for responsible consumers. The problem comes, conservation-wise, with the way it is caught.

Tuna for canning is usually caught by purse seiners. The fishing boats set large nets around floating objects, often Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs), artificial floating structures that attract tuna. When the nets are gathered in, it’s not just tuna that are landed. By-catch can be up to 50% of the catch, and can include billfish, wahoo, triggerfish, barracuda, rainbow runners, sharks, rays and sea turtles. The tuna catch itself includes both mature fish and juveniles, and may include yellowfin and juvenile bigeye tuna, both less plentiful than skipjack. Nets may also be set around whales and catch whales as well as tuna The whales escape by breaking through the nets. Theoretically.

The cans of tuna I looked at were labelled “Dolphin Friendly”. The Environmental Justice Foundation offers this information about tuna and dolphins:

The capture of dolphins that were deliberately targeted in tuna purse-seine nets in the Eastern Pacific Ocean caused an outcry when first brought to pubic attention. Tuna’s association with dolphins makes detection at the surface easier, but dolphins deliberately encircled by the purse-seiners were frequently captured and killed in the process. Dolphin mortalities reached hundreds of thousands every year, and populations declined rapidly until the mid-1990s when technological and operational changes to reduce dolphin by-catch were successfully introduced. The efficacy of these measures, in conjunction with management actions to limit dolphin deaths per vessel, has lowered mortality levels for all dolphin populations to less than 0.1%.

In other words, dolphin as by-catch has not been a major issue for about 15 years and the dolphin-friendly labelling is something of a “red herring”. In The End of the Line, Charles Clover reports that he had difficulty securing figures about tuna fishing by-catch. However, he was able to secure a report about a tuna fishing fleet making its way across the Indian Ocean. About 20% of its catch was endangered bigeye tuna. There were also oceangoing turtles including loggerheads, leatherbacks and others, most of whom are endangered. Whales that were caught included minke and humpback. Other fish included great white sharks, now listed as vulnerable, slow-growing manta rays, stingray and spotted eagle ray, hammerhead sharks and other seagoing sharks. No dolphins.

All in all, it would appear that a can of tuna results in the death of a lot more than just the skipjack tuna that ends up in the can. The most amazing thing is that all this lost sealife comes with such a small price tag. Check out the bin in the opening photo. If the cans were any cheaper, they’d be giving them away at the store entrance. What a waste.

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As spring gently unfolds her warmth, the species of birds that frequent the backyard feeder are changing with the weather. Certainly, the feeder is still a major attraction. However, the Blue Jays that dominated the daily arrivals just a few weeks ago have now given way to Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles. That’s not to say that the Blue Jays have disappeared, but fewer seem to be visiting. The American Goldfinches, on the other hand, are present in even greater numbers. The males are just starting to show signs of their spring spruce-up as their bright yellow breeding colours begin to replace their muted winter gold. A few days ago, the Goldfinches were joined by a few raspberry-bright Purple Finches. The Purple Finches weren’t regular winter visitors, so perhaps these few are just stopping by on their migration north. The wintering American Tree Sparrows are still here too. They will be leaving for their northern breeding grounds one day soon. I find that they tend to just disappear one day, replaced by similarly-coloured Chipping Sparrows as if by magic. The Chipping Sparrows breed here in the summer and winter farther south.

A few male Brown-headed Cowbirds have been joining the Grackles and Red-wings. I did see a few stray Cowbirds that visited a few times in the winter, but I think these individuals are probably here for the summer.

I like to watch the Grackles pointing. This “head-up” display is sometimes performed by females, but it is predominately a male posture, used both to attract females and as an aggressive signal to warn off other males.

In the photograph below, I caught a Grackle displaying with puffed-up feathers. It’s not clear whether his audience is impressed. The second Grackle looks a bit bemused by this performance, as if thinking “What the heck??” The display is another sign of spring and the new breeding season that is quickly approaching.

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