Wednesday, September 25, 2019

And No Birds Sang

Years ago my late friend Dave Stirling favoured me with a visit to Big Bras d’Or. Dave was a naturalist extraordinaire, one of three great birder pals who fostered my passion for birds and spent uncounted hours with me along shorelines, in woods and fields, in daylight and at night, all in pursuit of the joys of birding. One day during Dave’s visit here, binoculars in hand, we went for a walkabout on my several acres. It was a good morning, though not an especially extraordinary one: we counted forty bird species during the ramble. Dave was pleased, so was I. At that time, even on a routine day someone paying attention was virtually certain to see at least two dozen kinds of birds, most of them breeding right here at ‘Bigadore’.

Before my emancipation from the working life I tried to spend most of the month of August at Bigadore. In August the mosquitoes have subsided, the water temperature has warmed nicely in the saltwater swimming hole below the cabin, there is still plenty of sunshine to savour. August was good for birding too: the woodland breeding birds were still here, and as the month progressed I could look forward to ‘fallouts’ of early migrants: small gangs of warblers and sparrows of several species gathered in a feeding flock in my birches, pin cherries and mountain-ashes.

The halcyon days are gone. I used to see swallows from the cabin at Big Bras d’Or: barn swallows, tree swallows, perhaps an occasional cliff or bank swallow. The swallows have pretty much passed out of view here at Bigadore. I have been here since the first of June—close to four months—and have not seen a single swallow. Not one.

Nowadays there is no way a keen birder could routinely find two dozen species here, let alone forty. These days I walk my trails and woods and encounter mostly silence. If not for squirrels inclined to object to my passage the woods might be perfectly still. Rather than a couple of dozen species on a morning walk, I might find five, or four, or three.

This past week news headlines informed us of a scientific study cataloguing the precipitous decline in woodland birds. The report was no surprise to me: I have been seeing it with my own eyes for years, but this year in particular has been shocking. I still see waterbirds: gulls, gannets in their season, passing herons at dusk, groups of scoters assembling for autumn on the Great Bras d’Or. But songbirds—warblers, swallows, sparrows—are another matter entirely.

The precipitous decline in songbird numbers is a sad fact that can be laid largely at the feet of humans. We destroy bird habitat. We build skyscrapers, telecommunication towers and wind generators without much concern for the migrating ten or twelve-gram birds that crash into them during their night-time migrations. We allow our beloved cats to go outside where they do what nature designed them to do: hunt and kill. Twice this summer I have been seated on a friend’s veranda when the family cat triumphantly returned home with a bird in its teeth. The experts tell us that millions of birds are slaughtered every year in North America by cats allowed to do as they will in the great outdoors.

It is not just cats. I recall how appalled I was to learn about the toll delivered by a single telecom tower in Pennsylvania some years ago: more than a thousand ovenbirds killed on one night—just one—as a consequence of flying into an unseen tower in the dead of night.

What can be done? I am gratified to hear that initiatives are under way to give birds warning as they approach tall structures. Good. We can help as individuals too. Windows are bird-killers. A big picture window is a joy to the folks indoors enjoying the view outside. It is something else to a bird that crashes into it. People who care can help remedy the problem by placing silhouettes in their window—perhaps of a falcon or hawk—to signal that the window is something a bird should avoid.

For a person who is both a cat-owner and someone who agrees that the world is a better place with wild birds in it, does it not make sense, for the welfare of birds and for its own sake, that Puss enjoys life in the safe and secure comfort of its own home?

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Walking in the Dordogne

Chateau des Anglais
It was 100 kilometres in heat as much as 35 deg.  But we were up for it.  Mary met me in Paris and next day we headed down to Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, the beginning of the route On Foot Holidays had set up for us. On Foot set up our accommodations along the way, gave us instructions on how to get to our next place, and arranged to have our luggage moved to the next stopping place. After a pleasant meeting with Emily, the company’s local contact and designer of the route, we went for a celebratory dip in the river.  Let me just say it was very refreshing and we didn’t stay in long.  The evening was very warm, so naturally we left our windows wide open, never thinking that at 4 am we would be discouraging a bat from thinking our bedroom was a great roosting cave.  An auspicious start to our trip. 

Chateau de Castelnau 
Over the next six days we walked as much as 22 kilometres in a day, and gained an accumulated amount of altitude of as much as 700 meters.  We saw miles of limestone walls, taking many thousands of person hours to build, many beautiful churches, chateaux and even a few birds. 

Plate Stalegmites
We worked up our appetites, and were wowed by some of the food. I know we will both remember the local specialities of Rocamadour Salad, and chestnut liquor (we had it in a bubbly aperitif and were hooked after that). We stopped along the way to tour the caves in Padriac and LaCave, and were gobsmacked by the beauty. 

Sheep Shadow
I have a picture of my feet at the end of the hike that I won’t show you, but after a couple of days rest they look fine again.  Mary and I retreated to our Paris airport hotel a day early to avoid the fallout of a transportation strike in France and it was a good thing we did, too. We heard reports of 475 kilometres of backed up traffic during the morning rush hour.  Never mind, we are comfortable, and all set up for our return to Canada tomorrow.  

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Only 145 KPH

I am invaded by an earworm. A line from Fred Eaglesmith’s song ‘Wilder Than Her’ courses through my cranium: She’s a summer storm; I’m a hurricane. Hurricane Dorian—much diminished from the monster it was for the poor Bahamians a few days earlier—tore through Nova Scotia Saturday and Sunday. The biggest Cape Breton gusts were a mere 145 kilometres per hour, enough to topple trees, knock out power to eighty per cent of households, and keep us awake the whole night. But that is small beer compared to the 300 kph maelstrom that engulfed the Bahamas, leveled entire communities and left a death toll nowhere close to being fully counted all these days later. How do we even imagine three hundred kilometres an hour?

On Saturday Jan and I spent some of the day battening down the hatches—raising shutters, moving indoors everything that might be blown away, filling the woodbox, et al—before hunkering down for the show. The cabin withstood the ensuing winds without trembling. Now 48 years old, the building demonstrated it is sufficiently well made to withstand winds of a hundred kph or so. Not everything on the land proved as resilient. I walked our road the morning after—winds still howling—to find the road strewn with branches and parts of it paved with blown-down apples. Egress was obstructed by a big birch across the road. Later in the day I fired up the Stihl and commenced the task of reducing the tree to firewood.

We count ourselves lucky. We have only a minimal need for electric power and Dorian left our solar panel in place: I rely on it to power the laptop I use to keep Peregrinations readers informed of what we get up to at Big Bras d’Or. Friends and neighbours aren’t so lucky. I am co-owner of a generator I use in summer to run the power tools of my workshop. Pal Stuart Squires has it the rest of the year. Stu came down Sunday afternoon to retrieve the machine he needs to preserve dozens of chickens stored in his freezers.

The simple life we enjoy at the summer dacha reveals its advantages in the wake of a hurricane. Three days after Dorian blew through town a hundred thousand Nova Scotians are still without power. Our three rain barrels are full: we needn’t worry that a powerless pump can no longer supply the water essential to daily routines. We needn’t try to make our way to town in search of fresh fruit and vegetables that may not be available as a result of the storm: we still have a bounty of blueberries, blackberries and chanterelles, the best of all mushrooms.

But what of the luckless Bahamians? The climate scientists tell us that hurricanes as powerful as Dorian—or worse—will become ever more commonplace. Doubtless it is only a matter of time before a future cyclone delivers to Nova Scotians some facsimile of what was visited upon the people of Grand Bahama and Abaco last week. Meanwhile the man Americans elected as their president in 2016 asserts there is no such thing as climate emergency, and the menace chosen by Brazilians to lead their country burns the Amazon, convinced it is more important to produce beef than oxygen.

Catherine McKenna, threatened with physical harm by climate-change deniers, must now be accompanied by a security detail as she discharges her duties as Canada’s environment minister. Young Greta Thunberg is reviled for telling us we must all do our bit to reduce the human-induced threat to the atmosphere.

I share Greta’s aggravation with those who say ‘there is nothing I can do’. Nothing? Beef production is a huge producer of greenhouse gases. Can we not reduce or eliminate our demand for steak and hamburger? Can we not consider ways of clustering chores requiring a trip to town in order to reduce consumption of fossil fuel? Can we not occasionally walk rather than drive to a nearby destination? Or, gasp, go by bicycle?

During our walkabout around Dalem Lake yesterday we crossed paths with a woman recently immigrated to Boularderie Island after 31 years living in the Yukon—long enough for her to be struck by all the significant changes in weather patterns she has seen in that time. What will she have observed after 31 years in Cape Breton?

My dear old Mum, fretful about the world her great-grandchildren will inherit, announces she is grateful to be 95, and won’t have to endure the future herself. I am hard-pressed to debate her.