Thursday, January 27, 2011

Snow birds

One of the great privileges of being a bird-know-it-all is that now and then someone lets you into a moment of grace that flies or sings its way into their day. It happens on Birdline, the CBC phone-in show I help with every couple months on CBC Saskatchewan's Blue Sky. It happens when I run into people who have a bird they want to tell me about. And it happens by email.

The day before yesterday, I received a note from Swift Current artist and writer, Phyllis Nakonechny. Last year, Phyllis's beautiful book, Vidh: A book of Mourning came out, garnering a nomination for Saskatchewan Book of the Year. (Here is a page from her publisher, Hagios, on Vidh.)

Phyllis, as you will see, when you read her message reproduced below with her permission, is a deep soul whose closely observed writing comes through even when she is just firing off a quick email to a friend.

Hello Trevor,
I had the most amazing, lovely experience this morning. I went out my back door to sit on my winter bench to enjoy my coffee on this blue sky morning.

As I sat I became aware of the sound of birds.... I knew it was birds because it's winter and I don't live near a pond/marsh, because truthfully the sound was more like that of summer in the country than of January in Swift Current, Saskatchewan. I want to say it was like the incessant singing of frogs in the dark, but it wasn't croaking, more like very loud humming and buzzing in a continuous sound - no breaks -like the constant sound of grasshoppers on a hot August day.

But before I could look around to find the source of this -what I knew had to be a - flock of birds somewhere nearby, suddenly directly ahead and above 8 large white-winged birds started making beautiful soaring formations in wide sweeps across the sky - I could actually hear their wings flapping - and I thought to myself: they look like the Canadian Forces Snow Birds practising their aerial tricks. They made about 6 different aerial dances and then flew off.

I don't know what they were, but I was grateful to have witnessed their great white wings soaring above me. I knew the sound of the birds hadn't been coming from them, but maybe they were reacting to the loud sound of birds that still filled the air.

I could still hear this loud metallic humming and I turned now to look for the source. Two lots down from my back yard there they sat high up in the bare branches of the trees: I have no idea what they were. I have never seen such a group of 40 (?) VERY LARGE birds. I mean I have seen one hawk sitting on a fence post, but never so many such sized birds all together in a group.

I ran indoors to get my(unfortunately) small binoculars and tried to see them close up. They were basically a brown but their inside tail feathers seemed darker and a different shade altogether. So then indoors again for the (unfortunately, again)small Sony cyber-shot camera. Here they are with the first photo cropped a bit so as to bring them closer to the eye. I came indoors again to get more coffee, hoping to sit outside for a bit longer to see what they looked like if they flew, but alas, when I went back out, they had all gone. I don't know how long they had been there before I went outdoors, but the time that had passed had been about 10 or 15 minutes from when I had first heard them. I know you can't see them well, but do you have any idea what they could have been?

Best Regards,

Phyllis Nakonechny
Swift Current

And Phyllis's birds? Bohemian Waxwings, but, as my wife often reminds me, putting a name to someone's bird is not nearly as important as naming their experience. In this case we could call it "a mid-winter epiphany."

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Now and then we win one

In September I was writing here about the Alberta government's plans to sell 16,000 acres of native grassland to an agribusiness that wanted to plough it and plant potatoes. Several organizations responded in the media and by letter campaign to protest the loss of this important piece of prairie supporting a variety of species at risk. Nature Saskatchewan joined the fray by passing a resolution from the floor at its fall AGM in Indian Head and then sending a strongly worded letter to the Alberta government, cc'ing the Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA).

Vesper sparrows near Deep Lake, Saskatchewan, T. Herriot

Fall turned into winter and although I heard the Alberta government was taking a hard look at the issue, I didn't know which way things had gone. Then just after Christmas, good news came in the form of a letter from the AWA:

Dear Trevor

Re: Letter to Alberta Premier Stelmach

Thank you for taking the time to write to Alberta Premier Stelmach about the loss of native grassland in Alberta, and for forwarding a copy of your letter to AWA. We greatly appreciate your support in this important matter, and congratulate you on the resolution passed by Nature Saskatchewan, which sends a strong and clear message.
As you probably know, the ‘Potatogate’ deal to sell off 16,000 acres of public land, critical native prairie, was eventually suspended due, in no small part, to the widespread opposition received from individuals and organizations across Alberta and beyond. Your support was an important part of this.

Of course, the suspension of this one individual deal does not mean that the system of random and unaccountable sale of public land in Alberta has changes, so AWA will continue to work towards a system which prevents these sorts of behind-closed-doors processes taking place in future. We still have a long way to go!

We have been working with colleagues to develop principles and recommendations for the government to consider adopting as part of the Public Lands Regulations currently under development. For your interest, please find a copy of the document attached.

With sincere best wishes for a very Happy New Year,
Yours truly,
Christyann Olson,
Executive Director

If anyone else out there sent a letter, make sure you take a moment to draw in a grateful breath of winter prairie air, maybe hoist a glass of your favourite brew, and turn your thoughts to the creatures who will be doing their best to bring life to the prairie on those 16,000 acres come spring.

early November at dusk on the pasture south of Cherry Lake. T Herriot

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