Friday, January 30, 2009

A prairie visitor: Northern Hawk-Owl

This photo came to me from Tony Davidson who listens to the Birdline call-in show I do on CBC Radio's Blue Sky once a month. Tony called last night, "I was wondering whether hawk-owls are common in Regina."

They aren't common at all, but this winter, I told him, Regina has been lucky to have one living right inside the city. It first showed up a couple of weeks ago in Whitmore Park where Steven Weir found it. He and Bob Luterbach tracked it through the neighborhood over the following days and watched it settle in to its current haunts in the Riverside Memorial Park Cemetary south of Assiniboine Avenue in east Regina.

That is where Tony came upon it, photographing as it perched in the hybrid poplars along Assiniboine. (For the whole story of the Regina hawk owl, see the Saskbirds birding forum archives from January 15 onward.)

Meanwhile, Regina birder and bird-bander Jared Clarke was up north in the normal range of hawk-owls where he and partner Kristen worked with Prince Albert bander Harold Fisher to band several owls, including a Hawk Owl and some Great Grey Owls.

Take a look at Jerad's blog posting for January 28. It tells about a recaptured owl that he ages and shows photos of Great Greys and a video of Kristen releasing one at dusk.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Good news for Suffield grasslands

Good news for native prairie is about as rare as its endangered plants and birds, but in Wednesday's Calgary Herald there is an article that gives hope for people who are trying to defend one of the continent's last great remnants of native prairie.

Here is how the article reads:

"A joint federal-provincial panel has denied a controversial EnCana application to drill shallow gas wells in Canadian Forces Base Suffield's national wildlife area.

But the report said if certain requirements are met, all or a part of the project in southeastern Alberta may go ahead in future.

The report's recommendations will now go to Alberta's energy regulator and the federal environment minister for final decisions.

The 210-page document from the joint review panel, released Tuesday, cited concerns about five species at risk:Ord's kangaroo rat, the Sprague's pipit (a songbird) and three rare plant species. It also said a government-established committee tasked with overseeing development in the area is not adequately funded.

The panel held public hearings last October. On Tuesday, EnCana spokesman Alan Boras said the company is encouraged by its interpretation of the report that if preconditions are met, there is not likely to be any significant adverse environmental effects resulting from the proposed project.

However, Cliff Wallis, vice-president of the Alberta Wilderness Association, which has argued the development will cause irreparable damage to the grass-lands and the animals there, said he hopes this report blocks the development.

'There's some good recommendations that will make it impossible, in our view, for EnCana to proceed,'Wallis said."

If Wallis and others working on this issue can keep the shallow wells out of Suffield the pipits and other grassland birds will have escaped a significan threat to their wellbeing on this 450 square kilometre sanctuary north of Medicine Hat, Alberta.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Grass, Sky, Song illustrated

Once a week I am going to try to post an image that relates to the new book, Grass, Sky, Song, making my way from front to back, and explaining each image with a brief story.

The meadowlark shown here appears on the cover of the book. It is from an oil painting by the late Fred Lahrman, perhaps Saskatchewan's finest artist-naturalist. Fred grew up on the plains near Mortlach, Saskatchewan, and taught himself how to draw and paint. By the time he was four or five years old, he was drawing birds on the porch walls. (To learn more about Fred, read this tribute written for the Globe and Mail on his passing in 2003.)

As a young man Lahrman joined Fred Bard at what was then called the Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History. The two Freds travelled to the wilds of Saskatchewan north to south, collecting birds and other animals to be displayed in the museum. Fred Lahrman took it all in and, returning to Regina, began to paint the backgrounds behind the dioramas that made the little museum one of the best natural history displays on the Great Plains.

At the same time, Fred was working with Bard on two causes that have become legends of success in North American conservation. By the early 1940s, Canada Geese had become alarmingly scarce on the prairie, so Lahrman and Bard brought a pair of geese, Queenie and Hiawatha, to Regina and soon established a flock at Wascana Marsh in Regina that today is a symbol for the city.

At the same time, Lahrman and Bard began a campaign to try to save the remaining whooping cranes which were down to a low of 21 birds as of 1941. They eventually got the attention of government wildlife agencies and for the next three decades, Lahrman was involved in the recovery effort that saved the species from extinction.

Fred retired from the museum in the 1980s but when a fire destroyed the gallery he came out of retirement and helped to create even more stunning dioramas illustrating the wildlife of the province. Those of us who knew Fred remember him as the gentle spirit still presiding over the Wascana geese in his final years. Many times I saw him standing at the edge of the marsh quietly watching the wild geese thronging in their thousands, the arctic sub-species mingling with the resident flock in fall.

When it came time to create a cover for the book I thought of Fred right away. A good friend, Lorne Scott had been very close to Fred and had a collection of his paintings. When I called Lorne at his farm two miles from our place in the country, he said that his aunt Mavis was a collector and had a painting of a meadowlark that might do nicely on the cover.

A week later I was ringing Mavis's doorbell. She showed us her walls covered with the work of well-known prairie artists and allowed my daughter, Sage, to take a photograph of the meadowlark. The painting has a sombre tone as the bird sits in atypical repose facing the dying rays of twilight with the last snow drifts of winter melting away in April. Fred knew the mood of such a moment and how to make it live in paint. I like to think he would be happy to see it now enlivening the cover of a book.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Flying words

A week from this Friday, on February 6, CBC Saskatchewan is having its annual "Poetry Face-off". The theme of this little friendly competition this year is "flight" so Kelly Jo Burke, of CBC's Sound Exchange (and author of the play The Selkie Wife) called me to ask, "do you write poetry?"

That question has come before and I always answer the same way ("not really") with the same results: I end up writing something and shaping it into the facsimile of a poem.

"It can be a prose-poem," Kelly Jo said. "We are paying."

And so I have written a poem, which I will read on February 6 at the CBC building in the Galleria at 8 p.m. For contrast, there will be bona fide, legitimate poets there too reading their entries on the subject of flight--the likes of Marie-Elyse St George, Kelly-Anne Riess, Teresa Yang, and poet laureate Robert Currie.

[Swainson's Hawk image courtesy of the generous and inimitable Jared Clarke]

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Getting started

"Maybe call it a column. Then it won't be so scary."

Wifely wisdom for a 50 year old digital immigrant. (Took me fifteen minutes just to figure out how to do that link.) Having agonized for weeks over the decision of whether to start this "column" or not, I talked myself into giving it a try when I decided this morning that it is just like a book or an essay: a tool I can use, a means to an end. The end is always the same: to help foster a culture of people who will treat the land with compassion because they have awoken to its grace and wisdom. As for whether this particular means is worthy of the end it serves, increasingly people are suggesting that it may be the best tool of all because it creates networks where people share, connect, and learn from one another. For now, I am giving that theory the benefit of the doubt.

The immediate cause of this foray, though, is that I have a new book coming out and the publisher, HarperCollins Canada, likes all of its writers to have a "web presence." A friend, Keith Fortowsky, is helping me put together a web site (more gnashing of teeth), but suggested using gmail's blogger to get started.

The book is called Grass, Sky, Song: the Promise and Peril of Grassland Birds, (baldfaced promotional interlude: order from here or from Chapters/Indigo here). Due to be released late February 2009, GSS is a book that celebrates unassuming and secretive prairie birds as a way to bring our awareness to the life of grassland and all that threatens it today. When it is up and running, the web site should have more information about this book and my other two books as well.

Right now, though, on a cold late January day with three feet of snow outside the back door, the world of grass seems as far away as the ocean. Here in Regina, the largest urban outpost on the mixed-grass prairie without a major river running through it, we have converted grassland into an open woodland of 350,000 planted trees. At my feeders, there are nuthatches and woodpeckers, birds that cannot survive on open prairie. We almost never see true prairie birds in the city, but last week as I drove a daughter to her rehearsal, I was surprised to find a small flock of sharp-tailed grouse two miles in from the city limits. They were next to an outdoor hockey rink and skate shack when I saw them flush and fly north toward downtown. Sharp-tailed grouse survive on poplar buds for the winter, so perhaps they had come looking for food on the hybrid poplars in our parks and neighborhoods. Whatever the reason, it was strange and yet somehow reassuring to see them hurtling low over the street, wings bowed down with each glide.

By this time next month, the first grassland birds will be back: horned larks scouting for a mate and a place to nest in the farmland that comes nearest to their preferred habitat of short-grazed prairie.

Share this post

Get widget