January goulash


January ends with three shots of birds, none of which deserved a posting of its own, but which form a nice group.

What I thought was a flicker couple checking out possible springtime nesting cavities, turned out to be two males.

Normally, I prefer a more natural setting, but kestrels often alight on power wires, so I had to make do.

The best shot was of a Downy Woodpecker going from tree to tree as it looked for something to eat.

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Hunting flotilla


Nothing else on the Lake looks similar to a fleet of Common Mergansers in hunting formation.

The birds spread apart as they race across the water; their heads are down as they scour the shallows for fish. The sight is reminiscent of a fleet of frigates searching the depths for U-boats.

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Bighorn (again)


This has been a good season for hanging out with Bighorn Sheep. In October there were three postings (portraits, wooing, mating), followed by another in December (roadside sheep). Now, this one. 

What is interesting to me is that the October, December, and January postings are of three different local herds, not a revisiting of the same group of animals.

About two dozen bighorns were milling around: males, females, juveniles.

“The two of us are alone together in a crowd.”

It takes a herd to raise a lamb.

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Two-owl day


I can go months without spotting an owl. Yesterday, I saw two different species.

The Pygmy Owl was intently watching some smaller birds: chickadees, siskins, goldfinches. It looked poised to have one for breakfast, but flew away rather than attacking.

I have not seen a Barred Owl for a half-dozen years, but this one seemed unperturbed by cameras.

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Beaver munching


I keep returning to the spot where I saw the icebreaking beaver, but although there is often evidence of activity, the beaver has not been seen again—not seen, that is, until today. He was seen on a snow bank high above the lake as he sampled trees and twigs in his larder.

I say, he, but the few of us who watch this beaver really hope that he is a she and that springtime will result in kits. 

A beaver munches on a twig while keeping a wary eye on the one-eyed observer (the beaver merely sees a lens).

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Flying chips


A Pileated Woodpecker was flitting from one cavity to the next looking for insects. 

Each cavity had been carved in the spring by a nesting flicker, but some were taken over by Tree Swallows. With winter, wood chips fly as former nests are now probed by a hungry male Pileated Woodpecker.

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Icebreaking beaver


I have had insufficient opportunities to watch beavers for I have not seen one play icebreaker before. The beaver left its lodge in a bank and promptly encountered, what I think is called, grease ice. Grease ice is a later stage of freezing than frazil. The crystals have coagulated to form a soupy layer with a matt appearance.

The beaver just ploughed through the thin layer of grease ice.

It quickly acquired icy adornments.

While travelling (to the right), the beaver stuck its head below the grease ice and the flexible layer smoothly deformed over its moving body as if it were a bedspread atop a crawling toddler.

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Shooting the messenger


Margaret Atwood is among the many prominent authors and naturalists who recently sent an open letter to the Oxford University Press. The group expressed its profound alarm at the decline in a child’s awareness of the natural world. The petition notes:

Firstly, the belief that nature and culture have been linked from the beginnings of our history. For the first time ever, that link is in danger of becoming unravelled, to the detriment of society, culture, and the natural environment.

Secondly, childhood is undergoing profound change; some of this is negative; and the rapid decline in children’s connections to nature is a major problem.

What is particularly interesting is what precipitated this angst. It seems that the Oxford Junior Dictionary has been systematically replacing entries about nature with those about technology. The petitioners objected. Nature Canada, which offers a list of Oxford’s expunged words, summarizes the issue wryly: blog is in; beaver is out.

I share the concerns about nature awareness expressed by the authors of the petition, and with those of Canadian artist, Robert Bateman, who also commented upon the dictionary’s action:

This move will only help to alienate children from their wild neighbours. It’s taking a step in the totally wrong direction. If kids don’t know the name of something, they won’t care about it or think about it. This is especially true of our wild neighbours. How can we expect a kid to care about beavers or herons if they don’t know those words?

Oxford’s defence is that dictionaries are designed:

to reflect language as it is used, rather than seeking to prescribe certain words or word usages.

It is a simple statement that turns the tables on the blame heaped upon Oxford: the dictionary merely reflects present usage—it is not a device for social engineering.

The analogy is that if your physician tells you that you have cancer (or whatever) do you appeal to him or her to merely change the diagnosis, rather than address the underlying problem? It seems to me that the Oxford Junior Dictionary is being blamed for recognizing a deeper problem: the decline in the relevance of the natural world to today’s children. Is this a problem of Oxford’s making? Hardly. Does Oxford make a convenient scapegoat? It would seem so. 

My grandfather, Thurlow Fraser, was born in 1869 along the Ottawa River, just two years after Confederation. His father, Robert, taught him the names and behaviour of local plants and animals. Such instruction may well have been common in that day. While I similarly teach my grandson such things, I suspect that this behaviour has become an outlier in a changed country. When my grandfather was born, Canada was 19% urban and 81% rural. This has now reversed: Canada is 81% urban and 19% rural (Statistics Canada). 

As people have moved away from the natural world, its relevance declined in the consciousness of Canadians. Is it Oxford’s fault that it recognized the same problem as did the authors, naturalists, and artists? It seems to me that the Oxford Junior Dictionary is being made a scapegoat for a something far deeper. 

The solution (if indeed there is one) does not lie with shooting the messenger (Oxford); it involves dealing with the problem: the increasing irrelevance of the natural world for urbanites and their children.

I don’t have a fix. I could argue that this blog, with its frequent and clear delight in local nature, is an antidote. Yet, I am not so naïve as to endow my dabbling with such significance. 

Six of my shots of local animals are offered as a requiem for the lost relevance of the natural world. Alas, the assessment of the Oxford Junior Dictionary is probably disturbingly correct.

Are these otters wistfully contemplating lexicographic oblivion?

A heron is more concerned with eagle aggression than dictionary neglect.

Will my visiting kingfisher stop by less often now that it has been deemed irrelevant?

Even that national icon, the beaver, has been expunged, and with it much of Canadian history.

This doe, but maybe not her fawn, is now free to vanish from a child’s consciousness,

And even the ubiquitous raven has been erased from the ledger. It is unlikely to stop here.

The fact that nature has receded from our consciousness is not the fault of a dictionary; it is the fault of all of us. 



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Otters and ice


A pair of River Otters ceaselessly patrolled the edge of border ice. Why? Were fish more plentiful there, possibly because ice forms where water is shallow, or because fish seek safe darkness under ice? Does anyone know? Whatever the reason, the otters did catch a fish (but the picture of it was poor).

A shot of nearly submerged otters is not nearly as interesting as ones where they are half out of the water,

climbing onto the shore,

perching on a snow bank,

or sitting on border ice.

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Grebe 1, crayfish 0


Of the four species of grebes that frequent Kootenay Lake, the Pied-billed Grebe is the smallest and least often seen. So, when one is spotted, it is worth watching: Will its underwater foraging produce anything of interest?

Thursday’s Pied-billed Grebe made, what to me was, an unexpected find: a crayfish. I did not even realize that Kootenay Lake contained crayfish, and now the grebe was feeding on one—the grebe knew what I did not.

A Pied-billed Grebe was hunting along the shore of Kootenay Lake.

It dived and surfaced with something that, at first, I thought was a fish.

But, those dangling legs didn’t quite fit the profile of a fish.

The grebe had captured a crayfish. Is it is a native Signal Crayfish, Pacifastacus leniusculus, or an invasive Rusty Crayfish, Oronectes rusticus? My pictures are probably not good enough to distinguish. However, the grebe did not care. Its main problem was to turn the crayfish from being athwart its bill to aligned with it so as to swallow it.

The grebe dropped the crayfish and picked it up again so it was aligned with its bill.

Then with one gulp, the crayfish vanished down the grebe’s gullet.

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