Eastern screech-owl

Last night, my partner and I received a mysterious and memorable visitation. With the sun setting behind the Church of Our Lady, we walked down the hill to The Boathouse for ice cream. It was an immaculate spring evening. Sitting at a picnic table eating our treat, we gazed over the shining, shadowy river where ducks and geese restlessly approached roosting time. Across the river, verdant lacework had begun to spread across the veil of willow bows.

I wanted to stroll under those trees. Finishing our snack, we crossed Gordon Street bridge and followed the worn footpath through the darkling woods. When soggy soil dissuaded us from going further, we turned instead to stand and survey the city. Streetlights and glowing sky reflected in the water, enclosed like a stained glass window by willow branch leading.  A new moon winked and tiny bats fluttered past the panes.

The corner of my eye caught another movement nearby. I took my partner’s shoulders and turned him, pointing and whispering. A gnome-like figure perched not far away, craning its neck to see us. With a soft, puzzled bark it launched on soundless wings to edge closer. From one branch to another it came, until it sat not five metres directly overhead. Then, with one quiet hoot it flew a little further off. At last the falling light illuminated its silhouette, a ghostly pale, rounded face and silver-grey streaked breast.

A few times in my life I have heard the eerie whinny of an Eastern screech-owl. Sometimes they would haunt the trees behind the house where I grew up and sit motionlessly against the moonlit sky of a Lake Erie night. But last night was the closest encounter I have ever had with a wild owl.

Eventually it drifted into the darkness. We could see it flying here and there in the dim distance on errands or reconnaissance through its woodland property, but it paid us no further heed.

I wept with happiness. I am not naive enough to think the owl spared us any sentiment. Its approach implied at best curiosity, more likely mild umbrage at our trespass. Whatever it thought, we received its visit as a soulful gift. Nature repeats itself endlessly, seldom changing drastically, especially in the heart of the city. You have to be in the right place at the time, faithfully, patiently present and aware. Sometimes you might cross the path of breathless beauty.

Mixed-flock swallow phenomenon

Over the weekend I witnessed interesting behaviour in a flock of swallows along the Speed River. Friday afternoon on the way home from work I stopped in Riverside Park and found a mixed-species flock of swallows feeding over the river just south of Woodlawn Bridge. There were approximately 200 birds of three species, predominantly tree swallows with large comparable proportions of barn and northern rough-winged swallows.

A strong breeze blew almost parallel to the current. Numerous tiny winged insects appeared to be struggling on the surface of the water. Perhaps the breeze had prevented them from escaping it, or perhaps the intense bird activity had driven them down. The swallows would fly swiftly downwind for a distance, then turn and use the headwind to slow them so they could dip close to the surface and pick up bugs on the way back upstream.

I was suprised to see so many birds of different species feeding in one place, and wondered whether it might be a co-operative strategy. Possibly they all happened to be in one place because the food was there. However, something else happened to indicate a social dynamic among the species.

While feeding they seldom vocalized. Suddenly something excited the birds. Perhaps they had detected a bird of prey. All at once they rose above the treetops and began vocalizing noisily. They continued to circle, remaining in a distinct flock. This lasted for 30 seconds, then the swallows returned to the river, resumed feeding, and became quiet again.

An article from Stanford University’s website discusses mixed species flocking. Wikipedia also offers a useful entry on this foraging behaviour. It is fairly common among insectivorous birds such as chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, warblers and vireos in North America, other species in different parts of the world. Scientists have some theories about why they do this, for example the mixed flock may protect less vigilant species from predators so they can concentrate on foraging. Research suggests it is more likely to occur when food is scarce.

Food scarcity probably brought the swallows together. When I asked Chris Earley, interpretive biologist and education direction at University of Guelph Arboretum, about what I had seen, he pointed out that cold weather has not favoured the emergence of insects. The swallows would stand the best chance of finding food close to the river.

The literature scarcely mentions swallows, indicating only that they “rarely join” mixed species foraging. Possibly the swallows appeared together only because they had found the best source of food. However, interaction within the flock suggested something more complex.

I expected it to be an isolated incident, but I was wrong. Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, I went for a walk near the covered bridge, several kilometres downstream from the first location, and again encountered dozens of swallows feeding together over the river. The numbers seemed slightly less, but the proportion of species was similar. Evidently a few individuals had parted ranks, moved to breeding territory or perished, however I believe I stumbled coincidentally on the same group of birds in a different place.

On this occasion I witnessed pairs of birds flying in close formation over the water several times, usually a tree swallow with a northern rough-winged swallow. Tree and barn swallows appeared to be slightly stronger, more agile flyers, however all three are highly competent. The formation flying appeared to be deliberate, however I can only speculate about its purpose.

Milk of happiness

One obstacle to switching to locally produced food is the cost. People on low incomes cannot afford to give up the savings of shopping at discount supermarkets, where local production is not a priority. It is a sad fact that even in a country like Canada, the working poor cannot afford a healthy diet.

I recently read In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan, in which he argues we should concentrate less on what nutrients we eat and more on the quality of food. Buying locally is one of his principles I’m trying to apply, but it’s hard to do. I’ve given myself a new rule about buying meat from the farmers’ market only, so I know where it comes from. It’s also more expensive, so I’ll eat less meat, which may be a good thing.

Sometimes it pays to experiment. Healthy choices may not be as expensive as they seem.

Here is a case in point. I love milk. I used to buy a 4-litre bag (about 1 gallon) of milk and go through it in less than two weeks, easily: a glass of chocolate milk after work and a bowl of cereal in the morning. For a long time I wanted to switch to drinking milk from happy cows. A few weeks ago I started buying 1-litre bottles from Harmony Organic at a local health food store. The Southwestern Ontario company has the goal “to minimize stress and maximize cow comfort in everything we do”.

At $3.50 or so per bottle I would not be buying more than one for a week. That milk has to stretch a long way. Could I make it work, without feeling frustrated and deprived?

So far, so good. Here’s part of the strategy: I choose milk with 3.8 percent milk fat rather than 1 percent partly skimmed. I’m worrying less about reducing fat, and more about eating quality, whole food. This is delicious milk. I have four or five servings per week. Every one tastes like luxury. It is deeply satisfying. This change doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. I’m spending about the same amount of money on milk but consuming less. Meanwhile my consumption has shifted more toward plants: fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains, which are healthier for me. I also have the satisfaction of supporting a way of life for happier, healthier cows.

It would be hard to justify going back to cheaper milk, which is more costly in many ways.

Connecting to the planet: Chris Earley discusses the Galapagos

Chris Earley with Galapagos flycatchers

Chris Earley with Galapagos flycatchers, photo by Tom Chatterton

Chris Earley is interpretive biologist and education coordinator at University of Guelph Arboretum. He has written four field guides to birds of North America, such as Warblers of the Great Lakes Region and Eastern North America. Chris has led tours for Quest Nature Tours since 1999. I had the opportunity to interview him about his first trip to the Galapagos, which took place over 10 days in February. Our conversation delved into microevolution and the challenge of keeping parts of the islands a pristine environment. Besides himself, the group included 14 Canadian and American travellers. His father and 14-year-old son were part of the tour. Photos are included by kind permission of Tom Chatterton, Chris Earley and Bev Earley (click for a full-size view).

Q: I understand the tour was particularly focused on bird life.

A: Some Quest Nature Tours are bird specific, but they are nature tours, so we were looking at everything: birds, mammmals, reptiles, plants and geology. We try to be broad-based, but you can’t cover it all. The animals grab your attention more than the plants, but we looked at plants, too.

What are two or three of the most exciting things you saw?

Galapagos giant tortoise

Galapagos tortoise (not Lonesome George), photo by Chris Earley

One of the best things was seeing Lonesome George at Charles Darwin Research Station, where they raise tortoises and iguanas to release into the wild. Lonesome George is the only member of a subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise.They have been trying to breed him to morphologically similar females. Two females have produced eggs but they haven’t hatched. It is sort of a weird feeling. It’s: “Wow, this is Lonesome George! But wow, this is Lonesome George. Hi, so sorry. You are the last one. That was my species’ fault.” Hopefully, at some point the eggs might be fertile.

Galapagos penguin

Galapagos penguin, photo by Chris Earley

We do a lot of snorkeling on the tour. We were snorkeling with penguins. Even though we were on the equator, the water is cool. The penguins don’t go any further north. This penguin started hunting in front of us. It was keeping a school of fish. It would swim around them near the surface, then come up underneath them to catch one.

Suddenly there was this massive splash and it scared the snot out of us. A pelican was sitting on one of the mangroves and when the school got close to it, it dove. All we heard was this splash and saw this huge pouch.

Later we were watching pelicans hunting. (They filter fish by pushing water out of their bills.) Penguins would swim around hoping for fish to come out of their bills. Both species were benefiting from the hunting strategy of the other.

Tell me about the photo of the birds landing on your camera.

The wildlife there is extremely tame. You are literally walking around them sometimes because they are in the way. There are strict regulations about what you can do: you are not allowed to approach them and must stay at least two metres away. But sometimes the animals approach you.

These were Galapagos flycatchers. Sometimes birds fly at their reflection in a mirror, and we think that’s what was happening. Mine was the biggest camera, and it appeared that they were looking at it. This lens is a little too long for this! Other people had to take the pictures.

When we think of the Galapagos we picture lava fields and cacti, a relatively barren place. Can you describe what kind of habitat you saw?

Land iguana

Land iguana, photo by Bev Earley

There definitely were places like that where it was incredibly barren, like lava flows that were only a few hundred years old that didn’t seem to have a lot of life. But then you would come across a lava cactus or a lagoon in a depression where brackish water had collected. It would have ducks, flamingos, dragonflies and all kinds of plants. Little oases in the middle of the lava fields. There was a huge contrast between barren and desolate, and somewhere on the same island where you are hiking up the side of one of the volcanoes and everything was lush and green. It’s definitely a place of contrasts.

The Galapagos are often considered the classic case for evolution. What did you see that impressed you about this?

One thing I really liked was we got to see a lot of Darwin’s finches. Depending on what you find out about Charles Darwin himself, the finches or more likely the mockingbirds were one of the things that got him thinking, “Something is going on here.” It doesn’t really make sense that there would be different species living on different islands within sight of each other.

Research has been able to show over just a few years that the beaks of the finches were changing. The beak sizes changed depending on the weather and the kinds of seeds available. Darwin thought you can’t see evolution happening, but here is an example where you can.

We would be watching these finches: a small, a medium and a large. You can only tell them apart by the sizes of their beaks, but sometimes you can’t tell which species it is.

Some things are really hard for us to categorize. Evolution is plastic. Life is changing, and it’s changing much faster than you think it is.

The Galapagos also has some controversy over land use, particularly the conflict between those who want to preserve a pristine environment, and inhabitants who want access to resources, and people who want to explore the islands. What insight did you have into these questions from your trip?

Blue-footed boobies

Blue-footed boobies, photo by Chris Earley

Most of our exploration was in remote areas where people aren’t allowed to live and there were no settlements. You could see the national parks were doing a really good job of telling people when and how long you could visit. They’re trying to control that so that it’s never overcrowded at one site. Even though thousands of people are going every year, they’re doing a good job of minimizing the impact on the habitat. You have to be with a naturalist guide at all times. They tell you where you can go and where you can’t walk. Historically there have been problems with people overfishing in different areas, but we didn’t come across that.

How can preservation policies also satisfy the basic needs of people who live on the land?

You can exploit a place in different ways. If you’re using a place for ecotours, you can preserve it and also bring income for people who live there. It’s better than planting sugarcane. You have to get the people who live there to realize this isn’t just a special place to them, it’s a special place to other people. It can be a source of income while protecting the environment.

How did it feel for you to entere areas that are so closely protected?

It was nice to see how the naturalist guides are proud of their sites and they want to protect it. It was great to be able to see these animals where they’ve always lived and how they’ve adapted to their environment. We didn’t see any garbage even though thousands of people visit every year. I never got the feeling that there were problems due to the visitors going there. It seems like a great place to get people connected to the planet.

Speed River Project update

Yesterday Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG) Guelph hosted a meeting to discuss its Speed River Project. Guest speaker Dr. Karen Morrison discussed her work on ecohealth, suggesting human well-being is rooted in a sense of place. Communities should be defined by natural boundaries, such as watersheds, rather than artificial ones.

OPIRG Guelph’s work operates on the principle that environmental stability depends on social justice. The Speed River Project has coordinated social action to enhance the local environment, including tree planting and an annual river cleanup. Yesterday’s meeting culminated in a focus group discussion to gain public input toward future initiatives.

I hope to feature more on Dr. Morrison and the work of OPIRG in future.

Making beauty in the city

My first flower of springThe air feels cold like late winter, but the light is early spring: more intense, direct and engaged, having shaken it’s winter detachment. My partner and I went to Kensington Café in Kensington Market (Toronto) for brunch. They serve hard-to-find gluten-free dishes, like crêpes. I tried the lasagna and it was good.

This morning I read about one naturalist writer who finds it necessary to withdraw from city life. It depresses him. I have felt the same at different points in my life, but don’t know what to make of it now. Cities may seem unnatural, and yet we made them and we are part of nature. We might as well call an anthill unnatural. Humans are becoming colonial primates, and this is what we do to our environment. One way or another, things will find their balance. I doubt that it does any good to extract ourselves. We must remain engaged and work to shift society along a less destructive course.

Walking home we saw these yellow crocuses on the street where my partner lives: my first sight of spring flowers. While I crouched there photographing them, a woman came out on the porch and asked me what I saw down there. She didn’t seem to know anything about them. Maybe she rents.

Of this I am certain: if no people had made this city, there would be no crocuses blooming amid snowdrifts in late March on the north shore of Lake Ontario. It may be an exotic species, but it’s part of the world now, for good or ill. To my eye it is simply beautiful, and I’m grateful.

Reconciling science and spirituality

Where lies the intersection between science and spirituality? As a former evangelical Christian who one day realized he no longer believed in God, I have struggled to define what spirituality means for me now. Can I in fact still call myself spiritual? Chris Mooney of Discover blog The Intersection answers this question eloquently in an article published in Playboy (warning: the online link includes erotic visuals), The Born Again Scientist.

People have asked me whether I am a rationalist. The term makes me uncomfortable because it discounts the sense of unspeakable wonder one feels when faced with the complexity, beauty and terror of nature. I have similar qualms about materialism. What we feel is just as important as what we know. Science might one day break the workings of the physical universe into a complete set of laws and equations, however I doubt that we can ever thoroughly understand our own personal or collective inner cosmos. If magic exists, it is here. True pilgrimage happens within.

I prefer the category of philosophical naturalism. One need not resort to supernatural explanations to insist that the human spirit transcends logic. Over millions of years this powerful, untamable experience has evolved naturally: intelligence, sensory complexity, love, and capacity for awe. This also gives clues to the basis of a morality: we owe sacred allegiance to the world which bore this richness.

Tree bark gallery

[slickr-flickr id=”12687067@N00″ type=”gallery” tag=”treezone2″]

This winter I got in the habit of feeling tree bark. One weekend on a stroll through cedar woods along the Grand River, I discovered the bark of these trees is extremely soft to the touch and not especially cold, even on a bitter winter day. On my walks around the city I began taking my gloves off to explore the sensation of various trees. Smooth-barked trees like cherry and beech feel as sharply cold as the surrounding air. This gallery shows a visual exploration of bark I have made over the years.

Today I walked up to a maple I had groped a few weeks ago. The bark is rough, and I expected it to feel warm in the early spring sunshine. But my hand strayed into the unseen shady side and found instead cool moisture: either from rain earlier in the day, or perhaps sap seeping down from overhead buds. In the shadows it was coated with a patchwork of lichen like blisters of emerald and jade. On the sunny west side, the bark was indeed warm and comparatively barren.

Pukaskwa National Park 1I was reminded of the epiphytic lichens that coat the upper branches, or entire cloud forests such as this one I visited in Pukaskwa National Park on the north shore of Lake Superior last spring. A single tree is a miniature ecosystem, holding innumberable organisms in the halo of its branches.

Consciousness and eyesight

Addressing Why did consciousness evolve? Malcolm MacIver at Science Not Fiction theorizes it arose as animals left the sea and adapted to terrestrial environments. Life underwater requires short reaction times, he argues, because the range of senses, particularly sight, is limited. These circumstances don’t allow an organism to contemplate multiple futures or outcomes. In contrast, a terrestrial animal may see a predator or prey at a distance, and gains an advantage by being able to choose the best way to pursue or evade.

Lake Erie fogI suggest his argument fails to consider other animals making efficient use of senses other than sight, for example a dog’s smell or a bat’s echolocation. Sharks and other aquatic creatures rely on electroreception for remote sensing or communication, because salt water is an efficient conductor of electrical charge.

If consciousness were not useful underwater, it would follow that animal lineages returning to aquatic life would lose the capacity over time, cetaceans for example. However, whale and dolphin intelligence relies heavily on sonar for sensory input. On a completely different branch of the tree of life which does not descend from terrestrial organisms, octopuses possess powerful vision while demonstrating learning and problem-solving abilities.

Further to MacIver’s post, he argues that for “range for detailed imaging, there is nothing that beats vision.” He also mentions the theory that whales, in order to develop effective sonar, required the complex sensoria inherited from their terrestrial origins. Octopuses, in contrast, do not demonstrate the capacity for forethought so much as “powerful reactionary brains.”

The other part of MacIver’s question is: how we can modify our intelligence for more effective planetary citizenry? Good question. The role of vision may offer clues.