Bullfrogs return to the lake, bellowing Beethoven


The bullfrogs are back, at least for this summer, and I found a musical mnemonic for their song in one of Beethoven’s symphonies.

One morning each June for the past 15 years I have left the cottage around 4 a.m. to participate in the international Breeding Bird Survey. At that hour I used to always hear bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus) singing along the far shore of the lake, but about 12 years ago the sound started to disappear. In the past five years we have seldom heard them at any time, anywhere on the lake.

Since the 1980s, amphibian populations around the world have been crashing. The trend is well documented but the cause poorly understood. It is thought to relate to a combination of disease, pollution, habitat loss, increasing ultraviolet radiation and other factors.

Some people have noted a decline in bullfrogs in Ontario, though it is not well-documented. Around our cottage the vanishing has been progressive, distinct – and puzzling, considering the lake is situated at the top of its watershed and shows no sign of damage from pollution or acid rain. Shoreline development has been minimal. The vast majority of the perimeter remains Crown Land, with numerous ideal shallow marshy habitats. One of the more mysterious causes seemed to blame, such as a deadly fungus.

The diversity of other amphibians around the area does not seem to be affected. Overturn an old log and you are bound to find several red-backed salamanders. The marsh behind our cottage provided a deafening chorus of spring peepers when we visited in May. Green frogs, bullfrog look-alikes with a much different call, still chortle from time to time, though they haven’t flourished as one might expect from the disappearance of a prime competitor. Tree frogs squeak in the forest throughout the summer. But for several years I hadn’t heard a single bullfrog.

Until early Saturday morning. Shortly after 4 a.m. I left the cottage equipped for the survey. I closed the cottage door and halted on the porch. A familiar, soft groan resonated across the water, where dawn brushed the first, calm hints of silver. I couldn’t spare more than a moment to listen. I had to drive to Dwight for the first stop in my survey by 4:54.

My solstice ritual was, as always, a delight. I had better than average results for the Breeding Bird Survey this year, about 58 species, including two new ones for the route: Cape May warbler and American coot. Other highlights included Eastern bluebird, olive-sided flycatcher and black duck. Birds between stops cannot be included in the data, but I saw three others that way: mallard, broad-winged hawk and wild turkey. The weather was mild and still, perfect conditions for identifying bird songs. It was an exciting and fulfilling exercise, but I was equally excited about what had happened before.

Later that evening, about 10:30 p.m., I went down on the dock to look at the stars. And there the bullfrogs were again: a soft boom in the stillness. They would fall silent for a few moments, then resume their chorus again.

Suddenly I was reminded of one of my favourite moments in music, toward the end of the last movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 when the orchestra fades into swirling chaos. There is a moment of soft, teeming darkness as a distinct, insistent throb emerges from the string basses.

“Boo-DUM! Boo-DUM! Boo-DUM!”

It is the song of the American bullfrog, a sound even nature-loving Beethoven could never have heard, except in his soul. It’s the heartbeat of the universe. The rest of the orchestra gathers itself, smiles and mounts to a radiant climax, the amphibious basses bellowing underneath. Millions of stars explode, shedding light from decades and centuries away.

Hopefully, the bullfrogs have returned to stay. Maybe they have adapted to whatever threat sent them away. Or maybe this year was an anomaly. In any case, I was grateful for their greeting. And I will never hear my favourite Beethoven symphony again without seeing the splendid night sky underlined by pounding, breeding, thriving life.

Photo courtesy of Craig Stanfill on Flickr via Creative Commons.

Preparing for a dawn chorus


Data sheets, pencils and stop watch are packed. I’m excited for tomorrow morning.

Weather permitting, I’ll do my annual run for the international Breeding Bird Survey. This citizen scientist program has provided valuable data on changes in avian species populations over the decades.

Volunteers are encouraged to maintain the same route for as many years as possible to standardize the data. My route begins in Dwight, Ontario, and runs within 1 km of our cottage. Every year I do it as close as possible to June 21 to celebrate sunlight, life, nature and the longest day of the year (it is supposed to be done nearly the same date every year). I have to get up about an hour ahead to arrive on time at the starting point by 4:54 a.m. to cover dawn, when birds are most active.

The fact that I actually get to do it on summer solstice and observe the earliest sunrise this year is a special treat.

I have to finish some work at home today. This afternoon we’ll load the car and head to the cottage for the weekend. Happy Solstice, everyone!


Nettles for allergies

Foraging for nettles

This morning I harvested nettles to try as an herbal remedy for seasonal allergies. I discovered this property while researching an article for the spring 2014 issue of Edible Toronto: Nettles, better a bite than a sting, now available online.

They were already one of my favourite wild spring greens. Stinging nettles are delicious and nutritious, a good substitute for spinach or chard in practically any recipe, and easy for foraging if you handle them with gloves. Once steamed or dried they lose most of their stinging potential.

For the article, local herbalist Scott Reid outlined a variety of traditional medicinal applications. Urtica dioica has been used to treat asthma, he said, and natural antihistamines make the plant useful against seasonal allergies. My investigation turned up a 2009 study that supports benefits in treating allergic rhinitis, otherwise known as stuffy nose and post-nasal drip.

My worst allergy is to house dust. It hits hard in fall and early winter. The previous two years I had to resort to medicated spray to prevent the congestion from moving into my chest and causing worse problems. Nasal rinse also helped. This year I plan to try a herbal tea containing nettles and see if I can reduce my reliance on pharmaceutical drugs.

Today I harvested a few stems from a clump by the path at the entrance to our neighbourhood park. Passing cyclists might appreciate me pruning the stinging scourge. I plucked the leaves to dry in the dehydrator on lowest temperature setting.

I also added some fresh nettles and honey to my morning pot of green tea. It’s quite pleasant; no sign of the appalling bitterness we encountered in the hot, dry spring of 2012. Maybe I’ll go back and collect some for a vegetarian lasagna later this week.

Gardening promotes personal transformation

Watering can

This morning while weeding potatoes, I was thinking about secret growth. So much of what evolves in life is hidden, especially during winter but even now. The potatoes I dug into the soil four weeks ago are now tossing up deep green leaves, embracing sunlight, photosynthesizing food, but an essential part of their work goes on in the dark.

In the interface of soil, roots, bacteria, fungi, worms, protozoa, worms and tiny bugs engage in a wealthy economy of nutrients. I participate in soil ecology by feeding them worm compost and providing moisture when necessary. Later I will harvest tubers for many meals and save a few to plant again next spring, perpetuating their genetic material.

So many things have come together recently, I’m amazed. Some blessings have come from outside, but many of the changes are internal. A daily ritual I started in January has turned me into more of a morning person. I also found a system that has motivated me into exercising regularly for the past two months, so I feel more fit and energetic than I have for years.

Also earlier this year I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Recent circumstances allowed me to recognize how it had affected me while going undetected since childhood. The diagnosis led to tools that have improved my concentration and short-term memory to a startling degree. Writing has suddenly become a lot easier. I can hardly remember a time when I felt so absorbed and content in my work.

But the part of the day that makes me happiest is 15 minutes of gardening as part of my morning ritual. I reconnect with the soil, sunlight and the slow, grounded way plants live and interact with their surroundings. The alienation from nature I used to experience is left far behind and long ago. This isn’t hard work. It took some initial discipline but has turned into a habit I savour and look forward to when I get out of bed. It’s extremely simple.

Sunfire, noble steed

2002 Sunfire

Yesterday morning we purchased a 2010 Jetta sedan. It will be ready for us to pick up Monday morning for the first trip of the season to our cottage, appropriately with my two daughters.

My 2002 Sunfire is still drivable but beyond repair. Sometime in the next two weeks we will sell it for scrap. Yesterday when I fetched the insurance slip from the glove box to begin transferring ownership at the Volkswagen dealership, a wave of sadness came over me.

After we finished there and were preparing to leave, I couldn’t find the key to the Sunfire. I had a strange moment of panic until Danny found it on the floor in the salesman’s office. It had fallen out of my pocket.

I don’t remember anything like that ever happening in the past 12 years. I’ve mislaid the key many times, played tricks on myself, but it has never played tricks on me. It is the luckiest, most reliable car I have ever had.

I’m easily distracted and consequently in my youth had a number of minor accidents. There were never any injuries, but that was how three of my old cars died between 1984 and 2000.

With the Sunfire since 2002 I have never had an at-fault accident. Once in 2004 in Newmarket we were rear-ended by a careless teenager in an SUV and pushed into the car ahead. Brenna was with me. We both suffered minor whiplash for a few days. The Sunfire got a new bumper.

Over the years it has broken down at the roadside two or three times. A tire blew. The fuel pump died. I have had to pay for about one major repair per year the past seven years to keep it on the road. This weekend the odometer will tick past 265,000 km.

Now the frame is rusting. It can’t be repaired. The car has become a hazard.

Running Saturday morning errands today I thought of all the places it has taken us.

In its first year, 2002, its first major road trip took me, Marian, Brenna and my boyfriend at the time, Aubrey, on a camping trip to Tobermory and Manitoulin Island. My daughters were 10 and 8. In subsequent years it took us on other camping trips: Bon Echo Provincial Park and Ottawa with both girls, Algonquin Park with Marian, and Lake Huron with Brenna.

In August 2003 it took me and Danny to a gay campground at Turkey Point. It was our second weekend together, our first date. We weren’t a couple yet. We spent some time apart. Steve, a good friend of mine and bartender at the Black Eagle, happened to be there with some friends and I hung out with them one evening. But Danny and I both liked our time together the most. He enjoyed listening to classical music in the car: bonus.

In 2005 the Sunfire took me and the girls on a whirlwind camping trip to the Maritimes. Major stops included Montreal, Cape Breton and the Cabot Trail, Fort Louisbourg, Peggy’s Cove, a visit with my Aunt Nancy in Annapolis Royal and a two-night stay in their cottage, Brier Island, Prince Edward Island National Park, Grand Manan Island and Quebec City. Grand Manan was a favourite for all of us: deep fog, camping on the top of a cliff, hearing whales breach in the night, being wakened by the fog horn.

From 2006 to 2011 I commuted to Fergus in the Sunfire, working as a pipe organ builder for Les Smith. I helped build a large three-manual organ that we installed in St James Anglican Church in Dundas, Ontario. I also helped build a tracker organ that Les later installed in a Vancouver church.

In 2009 I went birding with my buddy Sylvie and the Sunfire made the ferry trip to Pelee Island. It was my first trip to the island, which is visible from the home where I grew up on the north shore of Lake Erie.

In May 2010 I drove the Sunfire with Danny across northern Ontario to attend Unison GLBT Canadian choral festival and visit his family in Winnipeg. On the way back we took some extra time, explored Winnipeg, saw some great birds at Oak Hammock Marsh, and experienced vertigo at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park and Ouimet Canyon. It was my first trip around Lake Superior.

In 2012 and 2013 the Sunfire took us to the men’s spring knitting retreat at Easton Mountain near Albany, New York (for our first retreat in 2008 we rode in our friend Ted’s car). Last year on the way Danny and I spent a few days in Prince Edward County and Montreal. MSKR has become one of our favourite events of the year.

The Sunfire was supposed to take us back to Easton Mountain last week, but when it went for an oil change and tuneup a few days before, the mechanic informed me it needed extensive repairs, but certain things could not be repaired and it was becoming a hazard to drive. It was not worth any further expense. Danny and I rented a Corolla for the trip.

That’s all I can think of. Danny, my daughters and friends might remember some other important journeys this car has made.

As Brenna said the other day, “Rest in pieces, noble steed.”

On one hand I deplore our civilization’s dependence on petroleum. I wish we could live without a car, without cars. Going without would present an obstacle to spending quality time with my daughters, who both live two or three hours away and don’t drive. It would be impossible to maintain and make use of the cottage four hours north, which we all love. Living away from downtown, as Danny and I do, would be a hassle without a car. We could not contemplate living out of town, as we would like to do eventually. Car co-ops are a good alternative, though maybe not for the number of medium-length road trips we need to make throughout the year. In any event, we would probably have to rent a car frequently.

Replacing the Sunfire makes most sense to us. In chosing the Jetta, we tried to balance fuel economy, trunk room, safety and reliability with what we could afford. I anticipate it may be an even better car than the last.

Still, it breaks my heart a little. Time passes. Many of the best adventures in my life have involved cars, the Sunfire more than any other. Time together on the road has played an important role in my closest relationships. Now my daughters are women.

And it is time for a new chapter.

Tomorrow my partner and I will make our last little road trip in the Sunfire to join a photography meetup at a local donkey sanctuary. It’s too bad there aren’t sanctuaries for useless cars. If I had a lot of land maybe I would drive it out to pasture, a remote corner, to sit in the sun slowly rusting among goldenrod and wild roses. It would get its long, long overdue vacation. Its body would outlast mine.

Dendroica: a great tool for learning birdsong

Blackburnian warbler

Every spring I review my birdsong recognition skills in time to run my route for the annual Breeding Bird Survey sometime around the summer solstice. One great tool for refreshing my memory is Dendroica, a program on NatureInstruct website. It was developed in Canada to train volunteers for programs such as BBS, and has since expanded to also include species found throughout the United States, Mexico and the Western Hemisphere.

Even if you just want to identify a few songs from the park, Dendroica will help. As a guest you can browse species, see pictures and listen to their songs and calls. If you register (for free) you can also take quizzes, study customized lists and contribute photos and sound files.

If you live in my part of the continent (eastern Canada or the northeastern United States) her is a list of park and garden species to look up:

  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Northern Flicker
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Blue Jay
  • American Crow
  • Tree Swallow
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Gray Catbird
  • European Starling
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • American Redstart
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Song Sparrow
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak
  • Indigo Bunting
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Common Grackle
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • American Goldfinch

Dendroica was formerly the genus name of a number of our warbler species, such as the lovely Blackburnian warbler I photographed above. They seldom nest in urban areas, though a few can be found in large city parks with regenerating or mature woodland. Dendroica was recently merged into the genus Setophaga.

Birding by ear: rose-breasted grosbeak


Opening the back door this morning, I heard a rose-breasted grosbeak squeak at me from the neighbour’s tree. He sat long enough for a nice look, then flew over our backyard and disappeared in the trees. He didn’t fly far though, before settling down to sing his drunk robin song while I puttered with potted plants on the deck. What a blissful way to start a spring day.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks are a good one for new birders to watch and listen for. Although forest birds, they like edges and newly regenerated areas, also frequenting city parks with mature trees and undergrowth. Though not as visible and exuberant as orioles and other species, the male grosbeak is one of our handsomest common songbirds, well worth the effort of  looking for.

Birding by ear will greatly increase your enjoyment of wild birds. As easy as birds are to see, most establish their breeding grounds just as trees are leafing out, so even colourful ones can be hard to spot. They are much easier to find and identify if you know the sounds.

Start by learning to recognize a few familiar species that frequent your garden or park, such as American robin, northern cardinal and black-capped chickadee. Then when you hear something different, follow the sound and try to find the bird with a pair of binoculars. This strategy will help locate other park and garden species like American goldfinch, house finch, song sparrow, chipping sparrow, Baltimore oriole, gray catbird, indigo bunting and yellow warbler.

Males sing to declare their territories for a few weeks. Once the chicks have fledged and left the safety of the nest, their fathers typically fall silent. By early July the morning chorus in most northern habitats becomes quieter. So late spring is the time to develop your bird listening skills.

I listen to Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern Region in the car each spring to brush up and expand my familiarity with less common bird sounds. This is a 3 CD set purchased from Wild Birds Unlimited. A narrator provides the name of each species and then you get to hear several recordings of its songs and calls. Many other CDs and programs are available. Beware, some birding software may be geared more toward recording observations than learning to identify birds.

I have a great app on my Samsung phone, iBird Pro, which I sometimes use as a field guide. It provides visual identification, photos, range, sounds and more information about more than 900 North American species.

However, a strong caution is required here. Careless birders frequently play bird calls from their mobile phones to attract birds. This is a favourite trick of lazy wildlife photographers. It works. There is no better way to get a male bird to show its face than to make it believe it has an intruder.

Don’t do this. Just don’t.

It is unethical to disturb birds especially on their breeding territory but even at other times. Bird specialists sometimes use vocalizations as part of research or as an aid in tours, but do so with discretion and a clear understanding of the risks. I have occasionally used vocalizations during migration season, but even this is a dubious practice as the creatures are often exhausted and their physical resources are depleted.

Again: never, ever use bird vocalizations anywhere near where they might have active nests. If you want to use a program like iBird Pro in the field, use ear buds.

Or familiarize yourself with bird songs at home. Recordings can be found free online. All About Birds from Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an excellent library and quizzes. Quizzes are one of the best ways to test your own skills and help remember the differences between songs.

One challenge is that different species often have similar songs. But birds can hear the difference and so can we, with practice. These similarities can actually help with the learning process. For example, if you know the song of an American robin it can help pick out similar songs. A scarlet tanager sounds hoarse, like a robin with a cold, and only nests in deep forest.

The red-eyed vireo sounds a little like a robin, too, but hesitant and broken, as if it’s asking the same question over and over. And over. It does so from the top of a high tree on a hot July afternoon, never tiring of its tedious existential inquiry weeks after other birds have finished talking.

The rose-breasted grosbeak’s song also resembles a robin’s. However, its vocalizations are relatively easy to distinguish from other birds’ in Eastern North American woodlands, and easy to learn. Listen to the sound files on All About Birds. I describe the grosbeak’s song as a “drunk robin.” It is more awkward, musical and cheerful than a robin’s, with a few slurred notes.

You will more often hear its distinctive call note, a brittle squeak, like a sneaker on a gym floor. A call is a note of alarm or scolding, while the song simply says, “Here I am. This is my space.”

If you hear a rose-breasted grosbeak it’s worth the time to look for this black-and-white bird with a vivid crimson breast, like a stab wound. The female is much plainer, sparrow-like, brown and white with a streaked breast. She doesn’t sing but makes the same unmistakeable squeak. Both birds have thick bills, true to their name. They are squat and smaller than a robin, best viewed with a good pair of binoculars.

Keep your ears and eyes open for this memorable bird on your springtime rambles. Let us know what other birds you see and hear.

Photo courtesy of John Harrison via Wikemedia Commons.

Farley Mowat leaves an imprint

Author Farley Mowat being interviewed on the red carpet at the induction ceremony for Canada's Walk of Fame

Well-known Canadian author and environmentalist Farley Mowat has died at 92. His 1963 bestseller, Never Cry Wolf, is credited with changing public perception of wolves as savage killers to one more sympathetic. His environmental advocacy and ability to spin a tale won both admiration and notoriety. He wrote many novels and memoirs. Some such as Never Cry Wolf  blurred memoir with fiction.

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be and Owls in the Family related uncannily well to my own childhood with numerous pets, some unusual and eccentric. Other authors made me want to write, but Mowat made me want to write about animals and nature. The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float, recounting his misadventures sailing around Newfoundland, introduced something completely unfamiliar, and was perhaps the funniest book I have ever read.

As an adult I read only a few more of his books, but Mowat has left an imprint on me much as on Canadian society. We are inseparable from the huge landmass around us, its wildlife and indigenous people, and he never hesitated to remind us. He has not left us unchanged.

Photo courtesy of Tabercil via Wikimedia Commons.

Environmental measures around a new condo development

Clearing trees for a condo

On Monday night Guelph City Council gave a developer permission to begin clearing a site at the corner of Gordon Street and Arkell Road for a new condominium. In fact the environmental review urged that the work proceed immediately before migratory birds arrive and start building nests. Friday morning all the trees had been cut and the work crew was removing them.

This is my neighbourhood. It had already been rezoned and was undergoing environmental studies when we moved here in 2011. It is located near Hanlon Creek Conservation Area and a provincially significant wetland, the same park our house backs onto. I did not know the background. Because of where the notices were posted, I expected construction would occur right beside the marsh at the bottom of Edinburgh Road. I was disgusted.

As the Guelph Mercury article points out, nearly 1,000 trees would be removed. This sounds like a lot, but the area being cleared is in fact much smaller than I expected. It does not abut the marsh.

Construction site for new condo

Guelph Mercury article says the trees are “mostly Scotch pine.” First of all, Scotch pine is not a thing; they are called Scots pine. It is a non-native species, which hardly warrants protection. However, I would be interested to know how many were actually white pine, a native species which completely comprises the nearby plantation behind our house. I did not think to scrutinize the trees on the ground, but many of those still standing in these photos are certainly white pines.

But a pine plantation, whether native or non-native, has limited environmental value. As I’ve written here before, ecologists used to think pure pine forests originally covered Ontario. Conservation authorities planted pines by the millions some decades ago, presumably in an effort to restore habitat. The same thing happened at Pinery Provincial Park.

The old ecologists were wrong. The Pinery proved these plantations are hardly beneficial. Now we know the original habitat along the Lake Huron shoreline was probably oak savannah.

Pine monocultures support minimal species diversity. Red squirrels and chickadees like them. We do see quite a few different birds behind our place. We even hear barred owls once in a while. But as for plant species, hardly anything can gain a foothold. Even in the openings I would have a hard time finding much more than garlic cress, burdock and a few grass species.

I love white pines. They are one of my favourite trees. But a hectare of monoculture is not valuable habitat. Few Neotropical migrants such as warblers and thrushes would nest or forage in this woods. The developer is supposed to plant 900 native trees and shrubs, which will almost certainly be more valuable to wildlife.

Tree protection zone

What impressed me about the site was the protection zones created around it. Fences shielded large sections of habitat. At right in the photo above they also appear to establish a future pedestrian walkway that would pass between the development site and the wetland.

Tree protection zone sign

Sorry for the poor quality image. The sign reads: “Tree protection zone (TPZ). No grade change, dumping, storage of materials, storage of equipment, unauthorized entry, tree injury or removal, disturbance of any kind. This fence must not be damaged or removed.”

The same fence creates a clear boundary around the back of the development site to prevent workers or equipment from straying into the adjacent wetland. A small wetland on the site is similarly protected.

Wetland protection

I often walked past this woods. I always hate to see trees cut. But it was too densely planted to be accessible for walking or any recreational purpose. I was relieved to see the small size of the clearing. The measures the city has taken to ensure protection of adjacent habitat, particularly the trees, was new to me. This development has been handled with considerable care to minimize environmental impact..