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Apr 30, 2011

Toronto's Distillery District revisited

I took a one-hour walking tour around Toronto's old distillery district today with my old friend, and former boss, Murray Skinner (right).   I'd visited the area a couple of times in the past, but this time I got to shoot a few pictures.   Our guide was a young fellow who certainly seemed to know his stuff and Murray and I quite enjoyed ourselves.    To stroll around here is to step back in time.   Dozens of movies have been filmed here.   It is a popular destination for art and dining (Murray and I had a an excellent Lunch at the Mill St. Brewery).   In the photo at top, a portion of the original grey limestone distillery  building is seen, still impressive after 131 years and having burned once.   The distillery's wood fittings and alcohol made for a grand night-time conflagration, which could be see from the American side of Lake Ontario.   The limestone walls were 42 inches thick and remained standing which meant that the building could be entirely retrofitted.   Grim stories of the distillery includes floors of the some buildings being only 5' high, as only young children, in the late 1800s, worked in some areas, thus saving headroom and space.   Al Capone was a visitor during prohibition and sometimes left calling cards that showed up as bodies in the harbour, or so the story goes.   Now tourists are everywhere, dodging Segways, shootings photos and videos, patronizing fascinating gift shops (no chain store operators here).   Murray and I should have toasted the young royals on their wedding day, but instead toasted our own good health.
The old Distillery District, in downtown Toronto's east end, is reputed as  the best surviving, intact, area of Edwardian architecture in Canada.   Please comment if you wish.
BtheB                                                                                                               (Photos by BarrytheBirder)

Apr 28, 2011

White-crowned Sparrow arrives

Photo by BarrytheBirder
The first White-crowned Sparrow, last year, showed up on May 1.   It is 3 days earlier than that this year, despite the cold, wet April we have had.   So the White-throated was later by three days, and the White-crowned was earlier by three days.   There's no second-guessing Mother Nature.   She will always prevail.
Please comment if you wish.

Apr 27, 2011

Cornell's Team Sapsucker ~ 264 species in one day

Black-bellied Whistling Duck ~ photo by Greg Page

Cornell University's Team Sapsucker has just set a new record for most bird species seen in one day, in the United States.   The team beat the old record of 261 species by three, to set a new record of 264.   In the process, the 6-member team raised over $250,000 for bird conservation.    As I searched for a suitable picture to accompany this item, I came across this adorable duckling photo, taken by a fellow named Greg Page.   One of the species on the Cornell Team Sapsucker's check-list was the Black-bellied Whistling Duck, which is what this little quacker will grow up to be.   Congratulations to Team Sapsucker for their tremendous acheivements.   More details are available at   
Please comment if you wish.

Apr 25, 2011

Audubon ~ born 226 years ago

John James Audubon
April 26, 1785 ~ January 27, 1851

On the way to becoming an art legend in his own time, and culminating in the publishing of Birds of America, John James Audubon regularly destroyed his own drawings and paintings as his method of demanding better work of himself.   He studied many styles of drawing, painting, materials and never stopped trying to improve his work throughout his life.   There were times when even the gods seem to be against him.   After some time away from home, in 1812, he found rats had eaten his entire collection of over 200 drawings!   He started over and re-did his drawings to even higher standards.   To this day, his work is the standard by which the best bird artists compare and measure their efforts.  
Green Heron

'A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world
is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children'.
                                                                                                  -- John James Audubon
Please comment if you wish.

Apr 23, 2011

Ballot box blues

I am deprived and have been struggling to save my composure.   No camera for 10 weeks (thanks for nothing Nikon) and 4 days without the computer (damnable trojan horses).   The computer came home today after 4 days in rehab, so here goes.   The next Canadian national election is to be held on May 2.   My wife and I however voted yesterday in an advance poll.   Today I received the following anecdote from old friend, Barb McGowan.

While walking down the street one day a member of parliament is tragically hit by a truck and dies.   His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance.
"Welcome to heaven", says St. Peter.   "It seems there is is a problem.   We seldom see a high official around these parts, so we're not sure what to do with you".   "No problem, just let me in", says the man.
"Well, I'd like to, but I have orders from higher up.   What we'll do is have you spend one day in hell and one day in heaven.   Then you can choose where to spend eternity".   "Really, I've made up my mind.   I want to be in heaven", says the MP.
"I'm sorry, but we have our rules".   And with that, St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.   The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a golf course.   In the distance, is the clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him.
Everyone is happy and in evening dress.   They run to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had getting rich at the expense of their fellow Canadians.   They play a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and champagne.
Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly and nice guy who has a good time dancing and telling jokes.   They are having such a good time that before he realizes it, it is time to go.   Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator rises.   The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens on heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him.
"Now it's time to visit heaven".   So, 24 hours pass with the MP joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing.   They have a good time and, before he realizes it, the 24 hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.
"Well then, you've spent a day in hell and another in heaven.   Now choose your eternity".   The MP reflects for a minute, then he answers: "Well, I would never have said it before...I mean heaven has been delightful...but I think I would be better off in hell".
Now the doors of the elevator open and he's in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage.   He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as more trash falls from above.
The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulder.   "I don't understand",  stammers the MP. "Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time.   Now there's a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable".   "What happened?"
The devil looks at him, smiles and says: "yesterday we were campaigning."
Today you voted."
Yikes!   Have I become so old and jaded that this tale prompts a wry laugh?   I need to get out and suck in some fresh air and get back to writing about things that are green, sunny, and bursting with the promise of spring.   Four federal elections in seven years - there aught to be a law.
Please comment if you wish.

Apr 19, 2011

White-throated Sparrow ~ pretty bird

Photo by BarrytheBirder

Our first White-throated Sparrow showed up yesterday, three days earlier than last year.   Last year the weather was beautiful in mid-April, while this year the weather is cold, windy and quite unpleasant, but the White-throated was three days earlier.   Go figure.   Anyway, the sparrow seemed to be renewing acquaintances with the lagging Juncos and the newly arrived Cowbirds.   I'm not sure we give sparrows enough credit for their appearance.   The White-throated and White-crowned are thoroughly pleasant to look at, and especially in the early spring.   Please comment if you wish, and I hope you have some to admire also.

Apr 15, 2011

A teapot of towhees

Photo by BarrytheBirder
Eastern Towhee
Pipilo erythrophthalmus
My friend and neighbour, Canadian author, Heather Robertson called yesterday asking me about the identity of a bird, in her backyard, which she did not recognize.   Her description clearly suggested an Eastern Towhee.   This is the first one I have heard of this year, hereabouts, and it is obviously eager to be about the business of spring ritualizing.   I took the towhee picture, above, last spring, in my own backyard, when it was was much warmer, early in April.   Today is April 15 and despite a bright sun, it is still cool outdoors and the grass has not grown yet, here, a half north of Toronto.   Towhees are common in southern Ontario, but are mainly found in the eastern half of the United States, where they number around 11 million in this day and age.   I really like the collective noun 'teapot' or 'tangle' of towhees.   I'm not sure why these names were chosen, but their alliterative appeal is obvious.   Please comment if you wish, especially if you know the origin of 'teapot of towhees'.

Apr 13, 2011

'Lady' Osprey lays 51st egg!

The Scottish Wildlife Trust has announced that 'Lady', the 26-year-old Osprey has not only returned to her nest in Perthshire, Scotland,  but she has laid her 59th egg.   Lady has now bred 48 surviving chicks.   Most Ospreys live to eight or ten in the wild, producing up to 20 eggs.   You can watch Lady by going to: .   Check out previous blog on Lady back on April 3.
Please comment if you wish.

Inner peace

My old friend Peter Marsh, is, in his own mind, a knower of all things.   Here is yet more evidence of his ability to stumble across neat bits of human and not-so-human wisdom:

If you can start the day without caffeine,
If you can always be cheerful, ignoring aches and pains,

If you can resist complaining and boring people with your troubles,

If you can eat the same food every day and be grateful for it,

If you can understand when your loved ones are too busy to give you any time,
if you can take criticism and blame without resentment,

If you can conquer tension without medical help,
If you can relax without alcohol,

If you can sleep without the aids of drugs,
Then you are probably the family dog!

Poem unattributed ~ photo: Charlie Chaplin in A Dog's Life ~ 1918 
Please comment if you wish

Apr 9, 2011

Garter Snake and grandson

Please bear with me as I make the connection between the heading above  and the picture at right of me and my grandsons.   The picture was taken last month in Cancun, Mexico and shows my two grandsons, William the elder, and Spencer the younger, on the beach.   My camera was damaged on the flight back and I have been 3 weeks now without it.   It hasn't stopped me from getting out and about and writing about my adventures.   I've used some old photos of mine plus I've borrowed much too freely from others, to illustrate some of my scribblings..   In any event, William, the elder grandson, accompanied me on a walk around Bond Lake today, not too far from our homes.   We saw a phoebe, heard some hawks and chickadees and came across a Garter Snake.   I picked it up to show William and he was captivated to see its flickering tongue.   I briefly noted for Will's behalf, that the snake regularly uses its tongue to take note of its surroundings, and then quickly handed it over to him, saying  "Take him and put him down over there", before he could think twice about.   I was instantly proud of Will, who will be five in 2 weeks time, for his instant willingness to take hold of the 2 ft. snake and place in the leaves, at his feet, from whence it slithered away to find a better place to catch some April afternoon sunshine.   His mother said later this afternoon that he eagerly recounted his real snake encounter in the woods.   This grandparenting can be so much fun.
Please comment if you wish.

Apr 8, 2011

Buddha's birthday

April 8th is the birthday of Prince Siddartha Gautama, who became known as Shakyamuni Buddha.   Buddha's birthday also happens to be that of my youngest daughter.   But far from being transmorgrified into a religious philosopher, she is an agnostic.   She is however, like the name Buddha also means, a teacher and a very good one at that.   She is on hiatus presently, raising her own small children and writing.   But this item is not about her birthday, but rather about the day of her birth. April 8th, 1975 to be precise.   We lived on a farm in King Township and my wife was scheduled to give birth to our second child by Caesarean section.   Spring was upon us but a severe, late-winter snowstorm hit three days before the big event.   Blinding snow blew perfectly flat across the fields and against the buildings.   Snow drifts rose right up to the eavestroughs on the house.   Nothing was moving on the roads.   Part of the trip to the hospital might have had to be made by snowmobile, but we didn't have one.   Fortunately, others nearby did and arrangements were made, just in case. 

This 36-year-old black and white photograph shows just how high  the snow got in front of the house.   But the day before the scheduled surgery, the winds died down, the snow stopped piling up and the digging out began.   My wife's uncle, a nearby farmer with a huge tractor-mounted snowblower, made it in the long farm laneway to the front of the house.   Digging with shovels got the doors uncovered, paths opened up, and the car uncovered.   The real event, of course, was the birth of our second, beautiful, little daughter.   Mother and daughter were fine.   Even now, 36 years later, winter is not over for me until April 8th is past.   Please comment if you wish.

Apr 4, 2011

Great Backyard Bird Count ~ 11.4 million birds

Photo by BarrytheBirder
The 2011 Great Backyard Bird Count numbers are official: 11,471,322  birds seen, 596 species seen, and 92,206 checklists submitted.   The most frequently seen species was the Northern Cardinal, followed by the Mourning Dove and the Dark-eyed Junco.   The most numerous bird seen was the  European Starling, followed by the American Robin and Common Grackle.   Not surprising, because of their southern latitudes, Texas, followed by California and Florida, were the states (or provinces) reporting the most species.   For the first time in the 14-year history of the GBBC, a Brown Shrike and a Common Chaffinch made the list of 596 species.   Closer to home, the most frquently seen species in Ontario was the Common Redpoll, followed by Common Merganser and American Goldfinch.   My GBBC top three, most numerous, species were Common Redpoll, American Goldfinch and Dark-eyed Junco.   That Common Merganser placing for Ontario is interesting because it doesn't show up on that many checklists, but when it does, it's in spades.   Most of the sightings are along the north shore of Lake Erie.   The small town of Blenheim, alone, counted 9,601 Common Mergansers on just 4 checklists.   Out of curiosity, I checked my youngest sister's village in Northern Quebec, on the eastern shore of James Bay.   For the first time ever, a checklist was produced for Wemindji, Quebec, with five species recorded over the 4-day count.   The most numerous bird in Wemindji was the Spruce Grouse at 17.   There were only 21 reported in the whole darned province!   The other four were Willow Ptarmigan, Sharp-taled Grouse, Common Raven and the ubiquitous, Black-capped Chickadee.   Once again go to: to get all the nifty details.   Below are photos I took of some of the birds on my GBBC list.   
Please comment if you wish.                                                         (Photos by BarrytheBirder)

Apr 2, 2011

2nd of April ~ 1st Meadowlark

mmmmmEastern Meadowlarkmmmm
Sturnella magna
Photo by Jean Iron/OFO

I tramped around the Koffler Scientific Reserve this afternoon as part of my preparations for the Birding for Beginners course that I will be leading on Saturday, May 7, 2011.   The usual suspects were in abundance: crows, robins and chickadees.   But I was pleasantly surprised to get a good look and hear the high, buzzy call of an Eastern Meadowlark.   Now if it will just hang around until the 7th of May.   Please go to for details of the course and registration info.

Apr 1, 2011

First Great Blue Heron of the year

April Fools Day brought the first Great Blue Heron that I have seen this year.   It's still quite cool, with snow and ice about, but there is lots of open water also.   This GBH was flying north over King City and appeared to be heading for either Lake Marie at the Marylake Augustinian Monastery, or Lake Jonda at Seneca College.   The all-white morph of this big, beautiful bird is only found in the Caribbean and Florida.   Please comment if you wish.
BtheB                                                                                            Photo by BarrytheBirder