April 25, 2008

Website of the Week

Since it is Friday it is time for our occasional weekly feature, Website of the Week, wherein I share with you a link to a website that I have found useful, informative or interesting. I am interested in and curious about many different things, so you can never tell what might turn up here.

I love Internet webcams. I have a program that lets me easily display a user-defined list of webcam sites from around the world. I have close to 1000 webcams programmed into the list which lets me take an around the word tour from the comfort of my desktop in just minutes.

This week’s Website of the Week is one such webcam. WildCam Africa is sponsored by the National Geographic Society. The webcam focuses on a major watering hole on the Mashatu Game Reserve in Botswana. Depending on the time of day you can see all sorts of African wildlife. In the last ten minutes I watched a crocodile, some exotic birds and some warthogs wallowing in the mud. Pretty neat!

Today’s photograph shows a local watering hole of sorts. It is a picture of the beaver pond that I visit showing the beaver dam covered by the spring run off. It is flood season in our province and the Saint John River is out of it banks in a number of places.

April 24, 2008

Willow

The spring-like weather has taken a decided step backwards today with rain and the temperature around 2°c. April showers bring May flowers. The rain is supposed to turn to snow later this afternoon. This will melt right into the ground and may turn out to be what is known as “the farmer’s snow”. This is the last snow you get in the spring which is also known as “poor man’s fertilizer”.

I took this photograph a few days ago of pussy willows just beginning to blossom. Here is one of the most familiar early signs of spring. Bunches of these now surface at our farmer’s market and in the hands of little children trundling off to school. Pussy willows are really the flowers of the shrub American Pussy Willow (Salix discolour) which is native to North America.

Actually, I need to be less specific about this because here in New Brunswick there are about 30 different species of Willow (Salix spp.) which are either native or introduced from Eurasia. Willows like water and will mostly be found in wet places – along the banks of streams or creeks for instance.

The fuzzy, soft gray catkins will blossom over the next few weeks with male and female flowers on separate trees. I once saw a time-lapse video of the pussy willows blooming and it could best be summed up in one word – SPROING!

Willows are one of those plants that have proven to be important to humankind for its medicinal properties. Native North Americans used willow bark for its pain relieving properties for hundreds of years. Willows contain salicin. In the late 1800’s the German company Bayer invented acetylsalicylic acid (ASA) which has been sold ever since as Aspirin.

April 22, 2008

First

It was a very respectable spring day here today with a temperature of 18°c. On my walk in the woods I started a rabbit. It reminded me that I still have to practise walking gently through the forest. Years ago I would bash my way through the forest sending wildlife willy-nilly before me. I am better now, but it still takes a conscious effort to be at one with nature. Oh, that I could walk like an Indian.

Today’s wildflower is the very first flower that blooms here in the spring. Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) is a member of the Sunflower Family (Asteracceae). It is a handsome flower and you will find it now in bright yellow splashes next to roadsides and in waste places.

It is a plant that seemingly has two identities. It produces its flowering stems at this time of the year while other shoots will develop the leaves much later after the flowering stems have died down. An old name for Coltsfoot was Filius ante patrem (the son before the father), because the dandelion-like flowers appear and wither before the broad, sea-green leaves appear.

Because of the time delay between the flowers dying and the leaves appearing, you might not associate the two as belonging to the same plant. The leaves are very distinctive and are said to resemble a colt’s foot, hence the name of the plant. I will try to remember to show a photograph of the leaves later in the year.

Other common names for this plant include Coughwort, Hallfoot, Horsehoof, Ass’s Foot, Foalswort, Fieldhove, Bullsfoot, Donnhove, and the common French name is Pas d’├óne.

The botanical name, Tussilago, means ‘cough dispeller’ and the plant has been known since ancient times as one of the most popular of cough remedies. In Paris, the Coltsfoot flowers used to be painted as a sign on the doorpost of an apothecary’s shop.

April 21, 2008

Blush

“What a poem is this of spring, so often repeated!” – Henry David Thoreau

We have had several very nice early spring days by now with temperatures in the mid-teens. This is what Canadian meteorologists refer to as double digit weather. With the warming weather comes the expectation of the first real colour of the year, especially after the months of dull grays and browns of winter. How we long for that fresh, vibrant new green of springtime!

But just a minute, now. We speak of the first blush of spring, and indeed, the very first colours of this new season are red, not green. The very first colour that one sees is the bright red of the shrub Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera). This plant has a bushy appearance and its lime green bark of summer gives way to a wine red colour in winter. This colour becomes an even brighter red at this time of the year just before the buds swell and the leaves appear.

The real first blush of spring is a very subtle thing. There will come a day when you look over the woods to see a delicate reddish hue to everything – the first blush. It will only last for a very few days and is a subtle thing so you must be on the lookout for it. It is made up of millions of buds coming out on the trees, blooming into that first bright inflorescence of spring. I find it very difficult to catch the overall effect in a photograph, but close-up images can be spectacular. Here are the very flowers of the trees in all their glory.

Blushes in nature, just like the human variety, are very fleeting. The blush on these maple keys only lasted a few hours. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time for this picture. This is one of my favourite photographs and I find the colours in it to be remarkable. These are the actual un-retouched colours. Just a personal note here. I don’t use Photoshop to enhance my photographs. Ever. I am old school and believe that a photographer should capture the image in the camera, not create an image on the computer. I think the former is photography and the latter is art, or worse, something else altogether.

Like many things in nature, the first blush is fleeting. You either are watching and waiting for it, or have the good fortune to stumble upon it haphazardly, or you miss it altogether. I try to spend as much time in the woods as I can so that I don’t miss anything. Where I live there are 125 frost free days so a lot happens in a very short period of time. Some of the most exciting days are just ahead …

April 18, 2008

Website of the Week

Since it is Friday it is time for our occasional weekly feature, Website of the Week, wherein I share with you a link to a website that I have found useful, informative or interesting. I am interested in and curious about many different things, so you can never tell what might turn up here.

Three things that I happen to love are food, photography and France, not necessarily in that order. This week’s Website of the Week has all three of my favourite things. It is Lucy’s Kitchen Notebook and it is a fantastic smorgasbord of fine French cuisine, first rate photography and wonderful stories about life in Lyon and the surrounding environs. I hope that you enjoy it.

As a bonus this week, I have posted a photograph of Thistle the rabbit just so you may take in the major cuteness factor. I am hoping that the weather isn’t as nice next week so there will be less daydreaming in the woods and more blogging happening. In the mean time, gentle readers, I thank you for your patience.

April 17, 2008

Update

Spring is busting out all over in so many ways that it is hard to keep up with it. So I thought that I would give you an update today on what is happening here. Our weather has been splendid with four straight days of sun and a temperature of 19°c expected today. It has been hard to stay indoors and blog. The crocuses are now blooming everywhere. Daffodils, tulips and tiger lilies are just beginning to poke their heads out of the ground.

The birds have noticed the change of seasons. Yesterday there was a flock of maybe fifty cheerful little redpolls in my backyard. They are massing for the journey north to their summering grounds. You can read more about the redpolls in my previous post here. The purple finches and goldfinches are spending less time at the bird feeders. Soon the goldfinches will molt, with the males putting on their bright yellow coats for the summer.

There are flocks of grackles about with their noisy, squeaky clothesline pulley voices calling from all directions. The flocks of robins are beginning to break up with individual males staking out their territories by filling the air with their song. The snow has pretty much all melted and the robins spend time scouring the lawns for big, juicy worms.

Everywhere you can see nest building activity. There are quite a few crows in my neighbourhood and there are at least two nests being built within sight of my backyard. I’ve seen pigeons, mourning doves and starlings all gathering nesting material and then flying off on their urgent mission. The woodpeckers have begun drumming on the trees again.

The ice is lifting from the ponds and marshes and there are waterfowl everywhere. The Canada geese and the ducks are looking for just the right place to situate their nest and raise the first broods of the year. There is a splendid marsh within walking distance where hundreds of pairs of waterfowl will make their home for the season.

Since we had a lot of snow this past winter the spring runoff has swollen the brooks and streams to their limits. Soon some of us will hike out to our favourite streamside places and pick fiddleheads to have with a meal of fresh salmon and new potatoes. This is the quintessential springtime New Brunswick meal.

Indoors us gardeners are busy filling every bright nook and cranny with peat pots seeded with our chosen hopes for the coming gardening season. I have windflowers and shamrocks coming up at the moment. My Hoya plant is in full bloom and at night the sweet scent fills the entire house with its perfume. Outdoors the buds on the trees are just beginning to swell and soon we will have that first blush of spring …

April 11, 2008

Website of the Week

Since it is Friday it is time for our occasional weekly feature, Website of the Week, wherein I share with you a link to a website that I have found useful, informative or interesting. I am interested in and curious about many different things, so you can never tell what might turn up here.

Trees

I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

by Joyce Kilmer (1886 – 1918)

One of the senseless tragedies of World War One was that the poet Joyce Kilmer was killed during the last days of the war. He died in action near the river Ourcq in France on July 30, 1918 in a battle that was to end only three days later.

His famous poem Trees has always spoken deeply to me. I love trees! Of all the plants, what a magnificent thing a tree is. I am not at all ashamed to admit that I can often be found hugging one of my favourite trees in the forest, or even just down the street in our local park. There are two beautiful silver maples there that I am quite fond of.

Today’s Website of the Week comes courtesy of neatorama.com and is called 10 Most Magnificent Trees in the World. I hope that you enjoy some of the most splendid trees on the earth and that you take the time to contemplate just what a marvellous thing a tree really is.

April 9, 2008

Beavers

Today was officially “the first nice day of the year”. I am declaring it so, what with sunny weather and temperatures near 19°c. On our walk today we saw a flock of robins, a number of crows engaged in nest building, purple finches and crocuses blooming everywhere. Everyone’s spirits were lifted by the decidedly spring like weather. I feel sorry for April in British Columbia who woke up to more snow. Phooey!

About a month ago I walked out to the beaver dam to see what was going on there. The dam itself has been breached and is a little worse for wear. While a beaver dam can last for years, this one will be taxed this year by what is going to be a heavy spring run off. In the spring and summer this little dam creates a large beaver pond that provides habitat and an important ecosystem for a variety of plant and animal species. This work of the beavers provides for water conservation, flood control and also creates an excellent breeding ground for fish. In the summer the water lilies on the beaver pond are beautiful.

The beaver (Castor canadensis) is an official emblem of Canada, and rightly so, as this country was explored and opened up by the demand for beaver pelts in Europe for making hats. At the height of the fur trade over 100,000 pelts were shipped to Europe each year. Fortunately, fur hats fell out of favour when silk hats became the rage, thus saving the beaver from extinction.

I am always amazed at the sheer amount of work that these animals do all on their own. For their size they are capable of taking down very large trees. A beaver can fell a four inch thick tree like the one in the photograph in about fifteen minutes. There are reports of trees five feet in diameter felled by a beaver. They are the very epitome of industry and the phrase “as busy as a beaver” is a very apt one indeed.

The beaver lodge is made from heavy poles and thick sticks which the beaver plasters with mud. The entrance tunnel is located below the surface of the water. Inside there is a one room apartment with a floor covered in shredded bark that is just above water level. Beavers mate early in the year and two to six kits are born about four months later. Although it looks serene from the outside, just imagine the family activity that must be going on inside with the newborn baby beavers right about now.

April 8, 2008

Stewardship

“Some keep the Sabbath going to church;
I keep it staying at home,
With a bobolink for a chorister,
And an orchard for a dome.

Some keep the Sabbath in surplice;
I just wear my wings,
And instead of tolling the bell for church,
Our little sexton sings.

God preaches, - a noted clergyman, -
And the sermon is never long;
So instead of getting to heaven at last,
I’m going all along!”

- Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)

In polite company the subjects of religion or politics are avoided. Just this once, however, I want to share with you my views on religion and the environment because I believe that this is so important. Although I am a Baptist boy with very deep roots in the American Baptist Convention, I must admit that my attitude towards going to church can best be summed up by Emily Dickinson’s poem. On a goodly number of Sunday mornings I can be found in the woods where I feel much closer to God than I do in my own congregation. I also come from the long tradition of New England transcendentalists. Henry David Thoreau is my hero.

Generally, when we hear the word stewardship in the sermon we assume that we are in for a long lecture about church finances; blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I have long thought that the word stewardship stood for something far more important. For I take stewardship to mean looking after the precious environment that God gave us. For me, it all comes down to how you interpret Genesis 1:26-31 which says:

26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." 29 And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.

I firmly believe that we all have a moral obligation to safeguard the environment. Further, I believe that as Christians we are directed by God to exercise stewardship over the world around us. In recent days more than 40 leaders of the very fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention have signed the Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change. This is a truly remarkable step in the right direction. Imagine how far we can go if the church puts its authority behind responsibility for climate change. Imagine what could happen if we restore stewardship to its rightful place.

Today’s photograph of a jonquil is inspired by my dear friend Helen’s mother-in-law’s daffodils which are now blooming in her backyard.

April 5, 2008

Thistle

I am very pleased to introduce to you the newest member of our family. Her name is Thistle and she is a Holland Lop bunny. She was born on Groundhog Day. She left her mother and brothers and sisters two days ago to come and live with us. She will provide great companionship for our other house rabbit, Burdock Bunny, who will be two years old in May.


Rabbits make terrific pets. I have been keeping a pet rabbit for ten years now. I am convinced that people who have a pet are healthier and happier for it. Rabbits are easy to look after, inexpensive to keep and will give you total unconditional love. One of the best sources of information about keeping a bunny as a pet is the House Rabbit Society website.

April 4, 2008

Website of the Week

Since it is Friday it is time for our occasional weekly feature, Website of the Week, wherein I share with you a link to a website that I have found useful, informative or interesting. I am interested in and curious about many different things, so you can never tell what might turn up here.


I am often asked how I achieve the effect found in yesterday’s photograph where one object is sharply focused to bring attention to it. The answer is that I play with something called depth of field. From today’s website link you can download a simple program called Barnack that illustrates the relationship of depth of field to other camera parameters. While the program is a little technical, you will find the Help file that comes with it useful in coming to understand this important photographic technique.


Today’s website link is: http://www.stegmann.dk/mikkel/barnack/

April 3, 2008

Crocus


One of the most familiar of the early spring blooming flowers is the Crocus. Crocuses are members of the lily family (Iridaceae), and there are about eighty species of them. Even though there are still snow banks about in my locale, the crocus bulbs that are planted next to a south facing wall or foundation are now beginning to bloom. Soon the park next to my house will be awash in their bright yellow, white, purple and variegated blossoms like the ones in today’s photograph.


There are a number of interesting crocus species. I am particularly fond of the wild prairie crocus found in the province of Alberta. It is much more delicate than the cultivated variety. A species of autumn blooming crocus (Crocus sativus) is the plant that the spice Saffron comes from. The stigmas of the flower are carefully picked and dried in a very labour intensive process, thus making saffron, pound for pound, one of the most expensive things in the world.

April 2, 2008

Backyard naturalist

I would, for the most part, describe myself as a backyard naturalist. Although I am fortunate to have a large forested area within easy walking distance, I live in the heart of a small urban city. And yet there is a great deal of nature to be observed right outside my backdoor. If you become interested in the natural world you live in, you will soon discover that there are hundreds of little dramas being played out in your world every day. Today’s photograph illustrates just one fascinating relationship.


On a recent walk I photographed this yellow lichen (Xanthoria lichen) growing on the bark of a tree. Lichens are very special in that they consist of two completely different living organisms which need each other to survive. Lichens are made up of a fungus and an alga. The alga uses sunlight to photosynthesise or make carbohydrates. The fungus uses the carbohydrates for food. This is called a symbiotic relationship.


Lichens come in an enormous variety of shapes and colours. They can grow just about anywhere and are found at all times of the year. Since they are symbiotic organisms, the fungus cannot survive if the alga is killed off by pollution. Because of this lichens are extremely important indicators of the health of our environment. Scientists are currently developing methods of biomonitoring that use lichens to great advantage.


Perhaps the next time you see lichens you will consider the unique relationship this organism has within itself and with the environment around it. This is the same environment that you live in. Chances are that if the lichens aren’t healthy you won’t be healthy either. This is just one of hundreds of interesting relationships that you can observe in the natural world that is all around you.

April 1, 2008

Tracks

Winter here will still last another few weeks. Just about everyone is tired of it and when we finally do get that first really warm spring day everyone’s persona will perk up noticeably. In the meantime we will just have to make the best of things. It snowed a little bit overnight which gives us an opportunity to discover many of nature’s little dramas being played out right in our own backyard. We can do this by observing and interpreting the fresh tracks left behind in the snow by our animal friends.


Looking out my kitchen window this morning I can see that a small tragedy has occurred in the backyard. If I were to try and describe the tracks to you it might sound something like this:


pitter … patter … pitter … patter … pitter … patter … pitter … patter … KERFUFFUL!@#$% ... pitter … patter … pitter … patter … pitter …


It’s pretty clear that the neighbourhood cat was strolling through the yard when it discovered a mole or shrew underneath the snow. A brief scuffle ensued whereupon the feisty feline had breakfast and then went upon its way. Fresh snow affords us the best time to study the various animal tracks and learn how to read the signs.


In today’s photograph some small animal, perhaps a fox, made its way all along the edge of the stream. Nothing distracted it and nothing disturbed its gait as it went about its business. I wonder where it was going and what it did when it got there. You will be amazed at the nature stories you can discover with a little bit of observation on your part.