Tuesday 23 January 2007

Beauty and the Beast

Before I start, I'd like to mention that there are two sides of the story on icy rain.
There's the beautiful side which I have already talked about.
And then there's the destructive side (the title of this post). I am sure a lot of the birds I have enjoyed at the Arb before the rain crossed the river Jordan before being able to cross the Gulf, a few friends of mine were severely struck because they had no electricity for a few days (hence no heating, no warm water etc.) and a few trees at the Arb and elsewhere have suffered quite a loss of branches.

This young tree for example would have felt relieved at not having a central nervous system which would allow it to feel pain if it had a central nervous system that would allow it to feel relieved at not having... wait. Forget it.

You can see that the ice not only bent the tree down onto the ground (luckily not breaking it), it even pulled out the stick supporting the tree.

Now, here's the bright side of things, the beauty of icy rain.

Looking out of the window one morning I noticed that there had been a considerable amount of icy rain over night, coating everything in a few millimetres of crystal clear ice. I therefore decided to go and check the Arb in my lunch break to see if everything was OK and had survived the weight of the ice.
I was very glad to see that most trees were coping well, no serious damage done, and I failed not to notice the immense change in atmosphere that the ice had brought with it.
With the clouds still low, the Arb had turned into a misty fairy-tale landscape that Tolkien would have struggled to describe. Even the most ordinary things had turned into small wonders and the fascination that the Arb emits in its usual state was easily matched now by one group of trees, one single slope, in fact by every single twig alone.

This view towards the north is right at the southern entrance of the Arb at Geddes Road. This is the uppermost part of the small valley that forms the heart of the Arb and we are looking down towards the Huron. The section immediately to the left of this picture forms the border of the Arb with residential homes next to it, and these have a few bird feeders operating. Therefore one is usually greeted by a nice assembly of birds right after entering the Arb, often comprising of Black-capped Chickadees, Northern Cardinals, White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers, Blue Jays and Dark-eyed Juncos. A bit of patience will almost always reveal the movements of a Carolina Wren under the bush seen on the left of this pictures and it is here that I got my best ever look at this species, approaching it without disturbance to within two feet.

From here I usually follow the path leading along the western slope of the valley which affords great views onto the open central part. The picture below shows the small ravine where "Old Faithful" is to be found and which is one of the most productive sites within the Arb this winter for birds. The bottom of the valley here is so wide that one small grassy hill is nestled within which I call "Philosopher's Hill" because in October and early November, before it got cold, one could almost always see people sitting on top of the small hill with a guitar or a book, once even a large wooden cross and so it seems that this small hill is an inspiring bit of landscape for those in pursuit of deep and important thoughts. I never ventured there but the grassy hill does inspire me to think of Sprague's Pipits. I wonder why...

This is just a random section of the forests within the Arb and they are just beautiful and incredibly varied.

I might have said it already, but the camera I was using is of the most simple kind, with no macro function, strictly auto focus and a built-in flash, so there was not much I was able to do regarding the details of the variety of miniature arctic landscapes that was to be found on each bush. As a matter of fact, this day at the Arb was not so much about binoculars than about magnifying glasses, and I hope the following images hold up to the richness of colours and shapes that unveiled itself before me that day.

This (image below) is the start of a trail along "The Ridge", a small ridge running parallel to the Huron River with a more open stand of mature trees. In spring this is a very good trail for watching warblers as one is at eye-level with the surrounding tree tops, but in winter it has been rather quiet. I did see a Fox Sparrow there once in November, surely one of my favourite - if not the favourite - North American sparrows and whenever a Hairy Woodpecker turns up at the Arb, it is mostly here.

This image below now finally allows the inclined reader a look at the famous Huron River, with "The Ridge" in the background. This area is called "The Beach" by locals - don't ask me why. There are usually a bunch of Mallards (real ones) hanging around the river and once in a while a few Canada Geese will test the acoustic of this area but it is generally also one of the more quiet areas regarding birds. On that particular day however a flock of 7 Eastern Bluebirds made an appearance and were another breathtaking treat in the white and misty trees of the Arb.

Here's an image of one of the Bluebirds. Oh, come on, show some good will, I don't have a fancy camera and they did look amazing in this kind of landscape, their blue backs being a reflection of their icy surroundings.

This section of the Arb (see below), which runs along the banks of the Huron river to the east, is called the Dow Prairie. I initially thought this name was chosen to encourage breeding Henslow's Sparrows to settle Dow(n) there, but it was probably named after Alden B. Dow.
This small patch of high grass prairie usually hosts a few sparrows, mostly American Tree Sparrows and White-throated Sparrows in the bushes along its edge. The most unusual bird species I have found here (in an Arb context) were Horned Lark and a Fox Sparrow. It is also not too unusual to hear the faint whispers of Golden-crowned Kinglets amongst the tall stems and bundles of grass, and trying to catch a glimpse is an excellent practice for secretive sparrows next spring.

I eventually returned home very happy and content.

Little did I realize what wonders the next day would bring...

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