Montreal Nature (formerly Ottawa Nature

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Location: Montreal, Quebec, Canada

I grew up in Ontario and Nunavut, and went to university in New Brunswick. For two years I lived in Ottawa, on the green belt. While I was there I wrote about nature. Then I moved to Montreal and I wrote nothing for a year. We've got nature here too, so I'm going to write about it.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Contemplation on an early November morning

I was up early today. There was a thick killing frost on the grass, and on the shingles for that matter. The world glittered, white, like somebody had taken it in his head to sprinkle sea salt over everything. I stepped out into the cold (the radio informed me, when my alarm clock went off, that it was -1 this morning. My slippers left indentations in the frozen grass, and the tale end of an orange sunrise on the horizon made the trees in the distance strange, glittering shadows. The migration of geese was going full swing overhead. They flew high over me, flock after flock, honking as if they had something really important to say, and needed to say it quickly. There were even a few seagulls, though nothing like the huge flocks I've seen during the summer monthes. The world was uncharacteristically silent and still around me, and I enjoyed it. under such circumstances, a man can be alone with himself, and with his thoughts.
It seemed to me as though the land, much like the city, was asleep. The garden has more or less been put to bed...where there was a mass of colour, there is now empty, bare dirt. Those few brave flowers and weeds I mentioned earlier have gone, with the exception of some pansies by the driveway, which will probably never die. I know now why, in some cultures, storytelling was reserved for winter.

Then I heard a door open, and barking. Apparently the dogs took offence at my being outside without them. So ended the morning's cannot introspect properly with a West Highland White Terrier sharing his opions on life. Suffice it to say, though, that it was beautiful.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

On the Winter diet of Deer

Once again, I find myself writing about deer. They're everywhere, they really are. Today I went for one of my walks (as an aside, I will be a happy man when the ground freezes. Everytime I go for a walk, I get mud covered hems. I'm out of stain remover), and I said to myself "I will find something to write about aside from Deer." So out I set, and while I saw some deer, I was determined that I would write about something else. It was when I was caming through a stand of Sumac that I realized I had no choice in the matter. you see, there was something odd about these sumac. some bark had been stripped from a number of them, a bit of a way up the trunk. I went in for a closer look, and sure enough, there were deer tracks. Apparently the deer have started eating bark, the weather having turned cold. I knew this would happen, but I expected to be after the snow fell. Ah, well. no use trying to make sense of the actions of ungulates.
Their ways are not our ways

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Deer, Again

one of these days I am going to change the title of this blog to "the antics of deer and similar ungulates in Ottawa, with occasional mention of natural history unrelated thereto". I see alot of Deer, you must understand.

Yesterday I went for a walk, as I so often do. I didn't see much of anything, proving once and for all what I have always suspected, to whit that the animals are much more sensible than I am. However, towards the end of the walk, I saw a deer....and then another deer, and then YET ANOTHER deer. Looking around I realized "Oh base vernacular word for sexual intercourse, I am surrounded". There were, in point of fact some 8 does around me. I'm here to tell you that, as beautiful as deer are, it is a bit spooky to have alot of them standing around, looking at you as if you owe them something.

In other news, I've been doing an experiment with some cactus seeds, planting them in various conditions to see how they grow. after two weeks, I'm seeing some seedlings in the two makeshift incubators I set up. the seeds planted without incubators are still dormant. I am proud as a new papa, and wondering what I am going to do with all these cacti.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Is that your own hare, or is it a wig?

So, having been in a particularly foul mood earlier (as certain of my readers will attest), I decided to go for a walk. Perhaps some wayward deities were attempting to show me that things are basically alright, because I saw more wildlife than I normally see on walks such as this. There were some quite interesting birds which I wasn't able to indentify at the time, but I will probably determine their species at some point.

I was most excited to see some Snowshoe Hares Lepus americanus, who are currently midway through changing colours for the winter. Much like Cottontail Rabbits, they spend the winter eating tree bark, as well as leaf an flowerbuds. Around here, they're pretty much unmistakable. They DO look rather like rabbits, but hares are larger, and have longer ears. Also, the Snowshoe hare....well, it lives up to its name. Rabbits have pretty big feet as well, but not that big. also, as previously mentioned, Snowshoe Hares change colour. They seemed pretty happy, all told. In point of fact, this is an excellent opportunity to use the word "gamboling". So that's what they were doing, gamboling. That was deeply satisfying.

The deer were also out in force....a young man's thoughts might turn to love in the spring, but a young buck's turn to love in the fall, and they were all over the place. The bucks have lost the velvet on their antlers, and somehow look more majestic with out it....the velvet makes them look soft, I suppose. The ground being damp, I was able to track some of them, just for the hell of it. When them leap, their tracks become skidded. Males typically have larger hooves, and the tracks of females are more liner....female dear, like female humans, have wider hips than the males, and as consequence their hooves align differently. No skill is useless to the enthusiastic naturalist.

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Monday, November 13, 2006


Yesterday, I looked out the window and saw a rabbit. I see alot of rabbits, of course, they are common animals. This one sticks in my mind because it was very very stout. It wasn't an escaped epet rabbit, but rather you average, garden variety wild rabbit, an eastern cottontail Sylvilagus floridanus. You get alot of them in these parts, along with the occasional Snowshoe Hare, although, of course, Rabbits and Hares are seperate and distinct creatures. I imagine my young friend was gearing up for winter, just the same as me. Of course, wheras I go to the store and buy a new pair of longjohns and some wool socks, rabbits fatten themselves up.

They're normally not all that active in the daytime, being nocturnal. this is, therefore, yet another case of the animals not having read the same books as myself. I really must talk to them about that. I suppose he was just enjoying the grass and such while he can...come winter he'll be eating bark, and twigs, which I can't imagine are as tasty. I think he'll probably be anticipating gardening season as eagerly as the gardeners, though for somewhat different reasons. That is, if the hawks, owls and coyotes don't get him....nature red in tooth and claw, as is so often said. However, there are plenty more rabbits in the world, even if a bit of predation takes it's toll. And without it, we wouldn't have half the animals that I love to see and hear. For a world with Owls and Coyotes, I would happily sacrifice any number of rabbits.

This one, though. I kind of hope he lives. Call me a sentimental fool.....I probably am.


Friday, November 10, 2006

I admit this is only related to Ottawa in the most abstract possible sense, but still

Bird sanctuary drilling permit an 'error': Environment Canada

I ask you "What?"

How does one accidentally issue a permit to drill in a bird sanctuary?

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Change of the Seasons

I've mentioned the season changing before, but I feel like devoting a post to it now. The trees are all but bare. The frogs appear to have left us.....burrowed into the mud for another winter, and hardly any birds are coming around the summer, the feeder is alive, now it's customers are getting fewer and fewer. Cardinals, always cardinals of course, as well as chickadees. I've seen nuthatches, and I imagine there are woodpeckers as well, though I've not seen them. They're always around somewhere. This may sound like a wide variety of birds, but it really isn't, not compared to the whirl of colour you see in the summer. I haven't seen a groundhog in quite some time, for that matter. most of the flowering plants have quit on me too, although there are still some pansies in the garden that are hanging on. The grass in the fields is brown, and the milkweed looks ragged. Thankfully, the poison ivy has gone as is occasionally nice to be able to walk unrestricted. Of course, it's too cold for sandals anyhow.

There is a point to all this. I can't help feeling like the land is going to sleep. this is an old thought, of course, but a true one, I think. Although, now that I consider it, the land isn't really hibernating. It's more like a bear....entering torpor. Sleeping, but possibly waking up long before you expect it.

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The Bruce Pit

if you've walked a dog in Ottawa, chances are you've been to the Bruce Pit. For those who never have, the Bruce Pit is a bit of Greenbelt in Nepean, named, unsuprisingly, after a pit, at the bottom of which is water. Very good sledding in the winter, apparently. I have no idea where the pit came from, but I doubt it's a natual formation. now, at some point people realized tha the Bruce Pit was a pretty good dog walking area, and more and more people, and dogs, began to flock there. The NCC eventually fenced off part of it as an off leash dog park. I'm pretty sure it's the only place in the city where you're allowed to let your dog run loose, although there *might* be another on the other end. It would make sense for there to be one. Unfortunately, though, alot of the nicer trails at Bruce Pit are on the OTHER side of the fence, which in summer you are allowed to walk your dogs on with a leash, and which in winter must be avoided, because of skiers. There is also a bike trail, which dogs must be kept off. I have no particular objection to these, rules in principle, although they CAN be a bit wearisome. However, there are some problems. '

1) With all the various and sundry people and hounds walking there, the trail is getting badly worn down. I'm told there used to be interesting plants there, but the more delicate species have ceased to grow. There are alot of chokecherry bushes there, but the cherries go uneaten. You don't see alot of birds there now, nor rabbits nor squirrels. The dogs seem to have frightened them off. The woods on the other side of the fence offer good birdwatching possibilities, and usually a nice display of Trilliums in the spring. However, if you want to stay on the right side of the law, you must leash your dogs, which makes for a less enjoyable walk. personally, I say "Fine me and be damned", but not everybody feels that way. In the legal off leash area, there are usually several hundred dogs per day, so there is a permanent and inescapable odour of dog pee.

2) I try to keep my dogs off the bike trail. Cyclists are somewhat less considerate about keeping their bicycles off the dog trail. Ditto skiers in the winter. We get one place in the city where we can walk our dogs off leash legally (barring, of course, my aforementioned "fine me and be damned" policy, and the cyclists and skiers have all the other conservation areas in the city. You get people on bicycles whipping over the trail at breakneck speed, and eventually somebody is going to get hurt. There are people walking there who don't move so quickly, and people walking small dogs that could get crushed, not to mention the carnage that would ensue of somebody crashed in to a great dane.

3) some of us happen to like birdwatching, and other activities near and dear to the heart of the amateur naturalist. We also like walking our dogs, and would rather like to combine the two.

4) With that many dogs one place, you're bound to get dogfights, which in some cases can leave at least one combatant bleeding. There's also a greater chance of diseases, worms and such being passed around. And I'm pretty sure all that dog pee I mentioned can't be healthy.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006


canis latrans

God's Dog

Prarie Wolf

Coyotes are something like groundhogs, which I wrote about in my last post. They have increased their range since human encroachment began. We have been creating ideal circumstances for them.....where there are no wolves, or bears or what have you, coyotes can live quite happily. Coyotes have been filling the ecological niche of wolves. They also feed, quite happily, on food scraps in garbage. They are small, resourceful and live either alone, or with a mate, rather than large packs, something which gives them a significant edge over wolves when it comes to urban dwelling. They will eat rodents of many kinds, mice, rats, shrews and rabbits, as well as foxes. In a pinch, they will eat fruits, grasses, and vegetables. in some places where Coyotes have completely filled the wolf's niche, they will hunt in packs and bring down larger prey. An animal designed for survival.

I have seen coyotes, though never here. I have, however, heard them at night sometimes, howling at one another. I've read that in rural areas, once they get started, they will respond to human howls, or recordings of coyote howls, though I cannot, as yet, confirm this through personal experience. It's all at once an eery, and a cheering sound, a sound that makes part of me want to run off with my animal brethren....who would, in all likelyhood, bite me if I tried anything untowards, so it's probably all for the best I don't . I would like to see our local coyotes, but even without that, I treasure the times I have seen them. They really are marvelous animals....a lovely sandy colour, and so small.... the average coyote is about 2 feet (60 centimeters) high, and weighs in at some 31 pounds (14 kilograms). There ARE, of course, coyotes larger than that, but anything much larger probably has some red wolf, or dog in it's lineage. They look at you with an expression divided between thinking that you owe them something and humour, with a healthy dose of "what fools this mortals be" mixed in for good measure. It's easy to see how the Coyote became a trickster figure.

That's another thing. they have featured prominently in myths. Most people seem to have heard of Old Man Coyote, for example, and he has worked his way into alot of popular fiction, the novels of Thomas King and Charles de Lint, for example. however, he was not limited to the role of trickster. in some traditions, Coyote was a creator of sorts, either through intent, or by mistake. I recall a myth....I forget from which tradition, though I DO know it's one of the southwestern nations,in which the creator is making people from clay. He asks Coyote to watch the clay people in the kiln, and tell him when they are ready. During one attempt, Coyote removes the people too quickly, thus leaving them pale, so the creator sends them away. Caucasians as one of God's mistakes, thanks to Coyote. I've always rather liked that one, although it does cast a less than flattering light on my ethnic origins. He has also been a culture hero, creating traditions, passing down taboos, and occasionally fooling the white man for the sake of the natives. The Navajo traditionally reffered to the Coyote as God's Dog, though not, of course, in english. There are two books, both of which I would very much like to posses, with that particular name as title. One is a work of natural history, and the other one of fiction.

Many believe that Coyotes are a threat to livestock. Some sources, which I have since lost and thus cannot list with any degree of accuracy, however, claim that the real threat comes not from pure Coyotes, but from Coydogs, Coyote-dog hybrids, and theorem supported by the fact that coyotes very rarely hunt in packs, and are too small to bring down any large prey on their own, though I would not want to leave my chickens running about if i knew there were Coyotes in the neighbourhood. They can, afterall, interbreed with both dogs and wolves.

You can, perhaps, tell that I have a great respect, and even affection for Coyotes. It would be more evident from my possesions, but Coyotes are, i feel, sorely under-represented in art and industry. One can find all manner of things with wolf motifs, but in Canada at least, coyotes are in short supply. I've often tried to find paintings, prints, scultures or stuffed animals with no success. Wile E. Coyote doesn't count, as much as I am fond of Loony Toons.

Sometimes I think that to be a coyote would be a very fine thing indeed.



Groundhogs Marmota monax, are quite literally everywhere these days. If you have ever been to Ottawa, you probably will have seen a great number of them, along the roadside, in fields, and in gardens. There was one here this summer that was in great danger of becoming stew when it made a lunch of a favourite plant of my grandmama's. There is, of course, a reason for this. We, as humans, tend to remake the landscape to fit our needs, rather than changing ourselves to fit the landscape. This often has a detrimental effect on the wildlife, but not always. Some things, such as groundhogs, thrive in this environment. They like lots of grass and clover, and as few predators as possible, conditions that Ottawa is able to provide. I've not been seeing many lately.....I imagine they're all hiding until spring, although I have certainly been wrong in the past, and I wouldn;t be suprised to find I was wrong once again...these things happen, afterall.

Interestingly enough, I have discovered that the Groundhog has a number of other names, which are not as commonly used, but are quite charming. everybody, of course, knows about it being called the woodchuck, thanks to the tonguetwister. However, I've never heard it called land beaver, or the whistlepig. I think I will make it my mission to spread the use of the name Whistlepig to refer to groundhogs, as it's a much more entertaining name.

Personally, I would like to see the huge numbers of groundhogs lead to a growing raptor population. You can't have too many hawks or owls, I think. That, of course, is just me.


Sunday, November 05, 2006

On Grouse and similar beasties

I was in hedgerow philosopher mode yesterday, so i forgot to mention this encounter. It only lasted a second in any case. I was, as previously mentioned, walking a long trail, which is intermittently wooded. Quite suddenly, a bird broke, practically under my feet. I was, momentarily, transported back to Eastern New Brunswick, where ring-necked Pheasants (Phasianus colchicus) outnumber people, buildings, and quite probably trees. I wasn't startled....under the circumstances described, you have the choice of learning to not be startled by the sudden appearance of game birds, or dying. I grew to enjoy the experience over the years, and I admit that I've missed it since moving to Ontario. In Nunavut, one sometimes finds flocks of Ptarmigan shooting up from underfoot, and while Ptarmigan are smaller than Pheasants, the experience is not entirely dissimilar.

This, though, was neither a Pheasant or a Ptarmigan. it was a female Spruce Grouse Falcipennis canadensis, a bird that is not particular to the Ottawa valley, but is rather found all over Canada, and quite probably the United States as well. It's pretty common for them to remain hidden until you get close to them....they are very well camouflaged birds, especially the female of the species. In winter, when there's snow on the ground, they get much more skittish. In the winter they typically eat the needles of conifers (hence the name, I guess), which certainly explains their presence in an area rich in spruce trees. As a point of interest, though I have seen many females over the year, I don't think I have ever seen a male. The species, like alot of birds, is sexually dimorphic, and the male of the species is pretty distinctive. I do wonder why that is occasionally, but I suppose it would be folly to try and explain the minds of birds. Birds usually have their own ideas about how things are going to go, and it's no use arguing with them.



Some would say to me "why are you writing about squirrels? Squirrels are just rats with fluffy tails and good PR." Firstly, no, no they aren't. Secondly, I'm actually quite fond of rats, and if I encountered some in the wild, I would certainly write about them. Of course, i haven't (muskrats don't count), but still.

I rather like squirrels. Often they're the animal you see the most of when walking, though these days I'm pretty sure the deer outnumber them 2:1, at least. We get two varieties of squirrel around here. One is the Grey Squirrel Sciurus carolinensis, which, confusingly enough, can also be black. It's the larger, and I believe more agressive of the two varieties, and has been introduced, detrimentally, to other countries, though it IS, apparently, native to eastern north america. I recall hearing somewhere that it was introduced to this particular region, but I can neither confirm nor deny that.

The other, and in this particular neighbourhood, more common variety is the Red Squirrel, also called the American Red Squirrel Tamiasciurus hudsonicus. This is not to be confused with the European Red Squirrel, which is near threatened, wheras the American Red Squirrel is not. Now, the red squirrel is kind of a specialist eater. About 50% of it's diet comes from cones....spruce cones and such, though I've seen them eating pine cones with great enthusiasm. Since there are ALOT of conifers around here, it's not suprise that I see alot of red squirrels. They also seem to like birdseed. The combination of one squirrel proof birdfeeder, one hungry squirrel and a bag of sunflower seeds is, quite frankly, better than TV. They have a really high mortality rate....about 22% of red squirrels make it through their first year of life, though afterwards their chance of surviving increases dramatically. They seem to be eaten by absolutely everything. Around here, for example, we get Northern Goshawks, Coyotes, great horned owls and, for a brief and giddy period, Martens, though I myself never got to see one. Red Squirrels, which, confusingly, can also be grey, brown and occasionally black, are alot more vocal that Grey Squirrels. yesterday, for example, I really offended a couple of them, and got a severe scolding. In spite of the fact that they can be coloured similarly to chipmunks, and Grey Squirrels, they are more or less unmistakable....they are larger than the former and smaller than the latter, and have white underbellies, which the Grey squirrel lacks.

I am always happy to see large numbers of squirrels, as that usually heralds an excellent year for coyotes, hawks and owls in the not too distant future.


Saturday, November 04, 2006

On nature, puzzles and the duality of human thought

I went for another walk around that same long trail today....It is really, really long, let me tell you. Incidentally, hiking in cowboy boots is not a particularly bright idea. in my defense, I was only planning on a short walk when I left. My plans expanded without consulting me.

I only have one encounter I want to report, then I'm getting philosophical, I'm afraid. I've mentioned the migrating geese before, and today was no exception. I was passing behind a farm when a flock of them went overhead, honking. Apparently that farm keeps some poultry, because a rooster crowed at them as they did so....a stirring example of interspecies communication if ever there was one.

Now, I went along the same trail as I walked on thursday. This time, though, I went along it in the opposite of the advantages of taking a trail that is, essentially, a big loop. However, from that angle, it seemed like a completely new, and different trail. I discovered this as I missed a particular turn off that I would almost certainly have seen had I come round the other way. It occured to me that this strongly resembles a problem solving technique that people really ought to use more often.....if you approach a problem from a different angle it seems new, entirely different, and is probably more easily solved. I am now faced with a question....does this count as pathetic fallacy? I just don't know/


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

See, I write about Mammals too

Today I went for a very long walk around the Shirley's Bay conservation area.....There's a great deal of it, you know, and I covered several kilometers. I didn't see much in the way of animal life, actually (there was one deer standing by the ruins of an old house. And me without my camera). however, I did see signs of animals. There were, of course, hoofprints aplenty....if I had a recipe for deer track soup, I would never have to go grocery shopping again. There were also dog tracks. Neither of these, however, are what I want to talk about.

Firstoff, the trees are mostly bare now. This allows me to see things I would not normally see. For example, in a swampy bit to the right of the trail that runs nearest carling avenue, i saw a muskrat lodge. Now, Muskrats Ondatra zibethicus are old friends to me. I used to see them all the time in New Brunswick, and while the presence of a common animal is not suprising, it is cheering. Muskrats are, on the whole, pretty amazing little animals. They have, I have learned, a unique nostril, shaped like the number 7, which somehow allows them to breath in oxgen that has been exhaled, while under water. As a consequence, they can stay submerged for some 15 minutes.

I encountered a muskrat while swimming once. I was down in the Ottawa river....not, I am sorry to have to tell you, at a public beach, though I wasn't trespassing either. I was paddling towards the shore in a lazy way, and I saw something there.....a muskrat. So I stopped swimming, and watched it. it came into the water as well, and came within two meters of me. So long as I stayed partially submerged, he had no fear. Quite the experience.

I also saw a classic example of violence in the wild. There were, at one point, a great many very noisy crows, all flocking around one area. Now, it was far too early for them to be returning to their roost, so this could only mean one thing. the crows had found themselves an owl. I don't know why, but crows and Owls, specifically Great Horned Owls seem to loath one another. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see the owl itself... the tree was a ways off, and I had no binoculars with me.

I heard frogs as I walked....the Northern Leopard frog, of which I have written before, is giving one last concert before hibernation. It was quite warm today, so I can't say I blame them for being out in force. But the cold is coming on fast, so that might well be the last I see of them for a while.

The Geese decided to make a liar of me today. Instead of flying overhead as I described, a great flock of them decided to paddle about in the river. Clearly they've been reading this. I am honoured.

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