Sunday, December 18, 2011

Photo Album: Winter Birds at Campbell River

A pool in Kingfisher Creek on the Haig-Brown property in Campbell River

I have had some great luck with weather since arriving here in Campbell River to work on this new book. I take an hour or two each Sunday to walk the beach and look for birds, and the last three Sundays have been warm and sunny. Here are a few of the birds I've been able to photograph (there were lots more I couldn't get a shot of:

This flock of mostly male Surf Scoters was near the shore at dusk where the Oyster River runs into the sea.

Lots of cormorants here--I have seen Double-Crested and Pelagic. This Double-crested looked like he was surfing on a piece of flotsam just below the surface.

Harlequin ducks are easy to find in the bays right in town.

I've seen all three merganser species here, but Commons are most abundant of the three:

I had some fun following a couple of Black Oystercatchers around a rocky beach along the sea walk in Campbell River.

These little Northwestern Crows here are real characters--always on the waterfront looking for a meal. It is actually a separate species from the American Crow.

One of the best parts about being here in the Pacific Northwest is to see all of the Great Blue Herons--they seem to still be in good numbers in this part of the world. This one was near the outlet of the Oyster River at the end of the day.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Haig-Brown Legacy

A portrait of Ann Haig-Brown, hanging on the walls of the Haig-Brown House

There are many genial spirits in this house, but the one I feel most clearly is Ann. I do most of my writing in her kitchen, watching the birds come to the branches by the window as they would have for her.

I was told that Ann was with Roderick when he died. He was in the yard working. Ann called him in for dinner. He turned and collapsed from a heart attack.

steam rising from the cedar fence on a cool morning on the Haig-Brown property

The Haig-Browns were both known for their compassion for people in trouble. Ann would open their home to battered women using it as an informal transition house. Today, the transition house in Campbell River is named after her.

Roderick, meanwhile, took his job as a country magistrate very seriously. He was thought of as being perhaps too lenient by some people--going easy on a teen caught with a small amount of marijuana--but he would always look at the whole context around the infraction that came before him, see the person and their life before making a decision.

Sometimes young men brought before his bench received sentences that included coming to the Haig-Brown farm once a week to learn about fly-fishing in exchange for some farm work. There were days when, between Ann and Roderick's social reform efforts, the perpetrator and the victim of the same crime would be on the property, a man out in a field with Roderick and the woman in the garden with Ann.

Roderick told one man who appeared in his court that if he stopped drinking and changed his ways he could live in the cabin on their property as long as he liked. He took up the offer and was living there when Roderick died and in fact remained in the cabin three or four years after Ann's death in 1994. The cabin was torn down just last year.

There are stories too of their bond as a couple. Roderick appreciated Ann's intelligence and would always consult with her on things that arose in his life as a writer, a conservationist, and a magistrate.

One story comes from someone who accompanied Ann to the airport to pick up Roderick after one of his many trips away from home in later years. Their reunion kiss, was reportedly altogether much too long for people of their age.

As I move through the shadows of this house alone and walk the trails on the property, I think of the two of them, the love that bonded them to one another and to this place. Exemplary people can live in cities far from any contact with nature, and people who live in the country can be coarse and heedless. Even so, when I hear of people like the Haig-Browns, their generosity of spirit and untiring service to the world, I cannot help thinking that it comes from a maturity of soul that can only be engendered by what Roderick called "participation in the world's real life, of steadily increasing intimacy" with nature.

Every day I learn more of their legacy here in Campbell River and in the conservation of river habitat all over the Pacific Northwest.

(No, the snow only lasted a couple of days.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Fisherman's Fall

Roderick Haig-Brown

Living and writing here in the Haig-Brown House in Campbell River has been an immersion into the life and spirit of one of the Twentieth Century's great writer-naturalists. At an open house on the weekend for local people in the writing and conservation communities to meet the new Writer-in-Residence, I was welcomed by many who knew the Haig-Brown family well. All spoke of Roderick and Ann with great reverence and admiration.

Here he is in 1950, explaining what it means to be a conservationist:
I have been, all my life, what is known as a conservationist. It seems clear beyond possibility of argument that any given generation of men can have only a lease, not ownership, of the earth; and one essential term of the lease is that the earth be handed down on to the next generation with unimpaired potentialities. This is the conservationist's concern.
(Roderick Haig-Brown. Measure of the Year. p. 26).

And last night, visiting the home of a man who has the definitive collection of Haig-Brown's life and works, I had the privilege of reading a limited edition of one of his diaries. Here is the entry from July 29, 1928:

A real day’s fishing on the Nimpkish at last . . . God, but it’s wonderful to stand in the middle of a wild river with the stream tugging at your knees, joy singing in your heart & the line shooting out into the boiling water . . . .

Finally, here is a film called "Fisherman's Fall" made by the National Film Board in the inimitable style of the old NFB I grew up with. You have to view it in two parts:

And here is part two:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Photo album: Birds of the Haig-Brown House

One of the delights of being writer in residence here at the Haig-Brown House in Campbell River is the birdlife. Hate to admit it, but the birds here are just more colourful than the common farm and urban birds you see in Saskatchewan. The Golden-crowned Kinglet (shown above) is probably the most common bird on the property. They rove in mixed flocks through the trees, moving rapidly all morning. Mixed in with them are their cousins the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet.

(Apologies for the blurry images--my camera and I, more accustomed to birds of the open prairie, are having trouble catching fast-moving birds in a shadowy forest landscape.)
Here is a series of the second most common species--the Chestnut-backed Chickadee. They come to food outside my windows every morning.

I see groups of Varied Thrushes every day.
With them there are often Stellar's Jays--but this one was coming to food outside the window.
Flickers here, the Red-Shafted have a slightly different tone to their calls. I love the crimson flash you get when one flies by.
Another shot of the Golden-Crowned Kinglet--blurry but at least it shows the fiery gold colour.
The last shot is of the first bird I saw on waking this morning. A young Bald Eagle hanging its wings out to dry for several minutes in the first sun we have seen after two very wet days.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Campbell River photo album

Salmon die like leaves falling from the trees. This one was on the edge of the Campbell River on the Haig-Brown grounds.

Here are some salmon still alive. I took this from a bridge on the river, where I could see hundreds coming through the inter-tidal zone upstream. I think these were Chum or Dog Salmon--perhaps still numerous because they are not as marketable as other types. These fish will likely be dead within two weeks.

Here are a few more salmon shots.

The gulls, mostly glaucous-winged, come to the river in great numbers to feast on dying salmon.

A couple of fishermen were plying the river as well.

Common mergansers and bufflehead were further downriver in the estuary.

I'll show some shots of the Haig-Brown property and birds soon.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Measure of a Day

I took a break from writing here while I made the transition to Campbell River for the winter. From now until mid-April I will be the Writer-in-Residence at the Roderick Haig-Brown House on the northwest edge of Vancouver Island's Campbell River.

The lead photo in today's entry shows a view of the house from the 17 acre property, with its trees in fall colours.

Roderick Haig-Brown (1908-1976) was one of Canada's best naturalist-writers, a fly-fisherman, and a strong voice for conservation in the twentieth century.

In my first day here in the house where he lived for fifty years, raising gardens, farm animals and a family of four with his wife Anne, I feel at ease in his presence, the unmistakable genius of a place long-tended with love and humility.

One of his most popular books covers a year on the land, observing his stretch of the Campbell River a mile or so above the estuary where it empties into the sea.

Measure of a Year is a rich and wonderful book, published in 1950, an early back to the land narrative about subsistence gardening and a life well lived in nature.

This is the spine of the copy I found in the room where I have begun writing my next book.

. . . And here is the title page.

The first day is ending and I am feeling a mix of excitement over the prospects of experiencing the river Haig-Brown fished and the ecology of the Pacific Northwest while I immerse myself in a new manuscript.

In the next few days I'll try to post a photo album showing some of the landscapes and birds I'm finding here, but I'll end this entry with one more shot--a picture I took of the large photo portrait I found in a hallway of this house, showing the man who loved this piece of the earth best, fishing in the river that right now is bringing Chum salmon upstream one hundred feet from where I sit.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Photo album: fall at Cherry Lake

Upper Indian Head Creek Valley, above Cherry Lake

The warm, sunny days this fall have made up for the cool, wet spring, giving us some wonderful weather for walking the valley and prairie from our weekend community at Cherry Lake. The beavers have made six or seven lodges in the creek upstream of the lake, and you can see places on the valley walls where they've knocked aspen down in pick-up sticks piles. Late on Saturday afternoon we saw five bald eagles heading up the valley to their evening roost site, which they seem to use in late October as they migrate through the area.

As we walked to count eagles, a group of five ravens played on updrafts. Two moved in almost perfect tandem. I have trouble taking ravens seriously. The way these two moved, I swear they were not so much courting as teasing or putting on a mock ballet.

"One of those ravens is an eagle," Karen said, looking through her binoculars at the other three birds near the pair flying in tandem. I pointed the camera's big lens and took a shot, thinking it was a bald eagle, but when I got it onto the computer later I realized it was the much less common golden eagle. Only our second record in six years at Cherry Lake, it was a sub-adult, which you can see from the white areas limited to the base of the primary wing feathers and the tail.

The other identifying feature is the projection of the head compared to the tail. A bald eagle appears to be bigger in the head and shorter tailed.

As we approached the springs and pond at the head of the tributary where the eagles roost, we slowed down and kept quiet, but still flushed five eagles from their roost. All bald eagles, three were adults. The following shots show an adult that flew across the valley toward us and overhead into the fading sun.

The next day I took some shots of the valley hillsides and the marsh end of the lake.

looking up the valley from the end of the lake

the tawny grass in the foreground is Little Bluestem

The curled "prairie wool" of Blue Grama grass in fall

looking down on the lake and valley from the rim--you can see how the beavers have kept this part of the valley hillsides cropped short.

The people shown in the right middleground are digging up some of our last potatoes from a new patch in our upper alfalfa field.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Premier Redford makes good on her promise

16,000 acres of Alberta Crown grassland is safe. . . for now

The 16,000 acres of provincially-owned grassland that was put up for sale this fall in Alberta (see the "Potatogate" postings here and here) will not be sold. During the controversy that ensued, people opposed to the sale, in particular, the Alberta Wilderness Association, managed to secure a committment from Conservative Party leadership candidate, Alison Redford, to suspend the sale. Now that she is Premier of Alberta, Redford seems to be following through on her promises. Here is a news release quietly issued yesterday by Alberta's "Sustainable Resource Development" ministry.

It mentions "impact on water and on the ranching community," and says that concerns about "public consultation and water use and availability" were the reasons the RFP was cancelled. Not surprisingly, no mention of endangered species or important habitat.

A victory, but as we've seen with this piece of land, the pressure to plough it under does not go away. Once Alberta completes its land use planning process for the South Saskatchewan River Basin (the South Saskatchewan Land-Use Framework), the government may consider selling this parcel and others like it. And the legislative mechanism for arbitrary decisions to sell Crown land remains in place.

Here is a Winnipeg Free Press report of the cancellation, with some words from Nigel Douglas, spokesman for the AWA.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Giving thanks for the prairie blessings that remain

Upland Sandpiper--it was a good year for this species in Saskatchewan

I had an experience this summer that helped me see with fresh eyes the blessings that remain in the prairie world, urging me to be grateful for the wild creatures who continue to enliven our pastures, fields, and sloughs.

A friend I know from volunteering a couple of times at Regina's Marion Centre asked me if I would take her and a visiting member of their apostolate for a bird outing.

Doreen is a sweet soul, open-hearted and full of spirit, so I knew it would be fun to show her some birds. Her friend, Charlie, was from Maryland originally and wanted to see some of our landscape and birds before he left.

I took them for a slow drive east along my favourite road out of the city one evening. Just an average, mid-summer evening: warm light coming from behind us, and a typical mix of birds. What transformed the trip, though, was the way Doreen and Charlie responded to each bird sighting, whether it was a meadowlark in breast-swelling song or a gang of cowbirds on a fence line.

We got a few looks at the Bobolinks and Common Yellowthroats who breed in an Agriculture Canada research field, a pair of Western Kingbirds, a couple of Swainson's and Red-tailed hawks on power poles.

Western Kingbird--a common sight along prairie roads

"Oh my, how beautiful," Doreen would say as each bird showed up in her binoculars. Sometimes it was just a small sound of delight. Both she and Charlie received the birds that came our way with a fresh welcome and complete gratitude for the gift manifest in feathers, song, wings.

I found myself relaxing and happier than I am sometimes when I am alone and grumbling in lament for all that I know is missing from the landscape. An Upland Sandpiper whistled and I felt my heart lift. Looking up, we found it flying with rapid, stiff wingbeats before landing on a power pole.

Moments later, we watched a Solitary Sandpiper and a group of six American Avocets foraging in Wascana Creek. The avocets, fading from their bright breeding plumage, flew back and forth in front of us, up and down the channel, long legs trailing, backs humped, heads lowered. It was glorious seeing them in these slow, circling flights.

American Avocet, beginning to moult

As the evening passed I told Charlie and Doreen about the moult of the avocets, the sexual behaviour of the bobolinks, the natural history of cowbirds, and I spelled the word "slough" for them, unfamiliar as it is to people from the eastern half of the continent.

Later we all watched in awe as a Vesper Sparrow sang to the setting sun from its ditch-side dock plant.

Vesper Sparrow, head back in full song

"So many birds. I can't believe how many birds there are here," Doreen said as we watched cowbirds with some cattle.

I see all that is missing and they see all that is there. And instead of complaining, they were grateful, so grateful, part of them bowing inwardly to each creature, each field of cut hay, or barn, or row of fence.

I don't know if I have ever felt that deep receiving thankfulness, but it seemed in that moment like something I had lost and wanted dearly to feel again.

And so, thanks be for Upland Sandpipers, Avocets, Vesper Sparrows and the many birds we still have. Thanks be for the wet season we had, the waterfowl it spawned in the millions across the land, and thanks be for farmers and ranchers who have found it good to keep native grass or any kind of grass on the land they draw a living from.

Share this post

Get widget