Tundra SwanssmallHappy Spring, everyone! It not only feels like spring, it smells, sounds and looks like it! And I hope I’m not stretching a point too much, with the sap running and the maple syrup being made, it tastes like it too! Well, I wrote those words before winter decided to come back. But it can’t be long now; and a sure sign of spring for me is the calling of the Red-winged Blackbirds, who have just re-appeared.
    The cardinals are telling us it’s spring as well. These gorgeous birds, both the flamboyant male and the more subtly beautiful female, sing many different songs. I was interested to read that scientists have described at least 16 different calls.  And both the male and female sing, which is not common in the bird kingdom.  Their singing is surely a sign of spring, at least the lengthening days, but I was amazed a couple of weeks ago when I took the dogs out for the first time on a -22°C morning that a cardinal should be singing. Yes, it was bright but, boy, it was cold!
    Waterfowl on the millpond indicates that spring is here as well. The Canada Geese are back, as are mallards. During that last long and heavy snowfall I was walking around the millpond, and I was interested to see a pair of mallards. They looked so out of place huddling as the snow fell. But even more interesting was a sighting of swans on the millpond. At first I couldn’t believe my eyes (thank heavens for binoculars!). And I began to question my observation: could they actually be albino Canada Geese?! Luckily I ran into friend and neighbour, Dave Hobson, also out walking and I learned that he had seen them and had, in fact, taken photos.  See his photo accompanying this column. Eureka! I was able to go to my bird books and confidently make an identification: Whistling Swans also known as Tundra Swans. I hadn’t realized we had any native swans.  You see, I was confused because the introduced Mute Swan (now relatively common along Lake Ontario) is much larger and usually holds its neck in the classic “swan curve”.  Since seeing them I read that they were hunted to extinction in Ontario but protection put into law in 1916 has allowed these swans to re-establish a population in this province.
    Still on the subject of birds, I was walking along the creek trail one beautiful morning and I spied waxwings. Now, this is not so unusual, but somehow they didn’t look quite right.   And a closer look revealed them as larger and more colourful than our usual Cedar Waxwing. Finally I had seen Bohemian Waxwings! Many’s the time I have looked at their page in my bird book, hoping that I would one day see them.  But if you never get the chance, you are still blessed to see Cedar Waxwings. They are indeed very beautiful in a svelte, elegant way.  That morning the waxwings, along with a flock of robins, were happily eating buckthorn berries. This alien shrub/small tree is much despised but obviously it’s serving some purpose.
    Grace Glass’s kind and intelligent letter the other week had me running to my computer to view the link she had provided. I had heard of albatrosses.  And I had heard of Midway Islands, a crucial location in the US’s battles against Japan in World War II.  But I had no idea of the islands’ importance to seabirds or the horrible evidence of bird mortality because of their eating some of the vast amounts of garbage plastic floating in our oceans.  Truly awful and truly a lesson to us to clean up our act.  You know, even those cigarette butts we see carelessly tossed here and there are a threat to wildlife if eaten.
    As the spring migration of birds gets into gear every year I am troubled by the thought of how many birds are taken by cats.  And how unjust it seems that it’s rarely the common starling or sparrow that becomes a meal.  I was even more troubled when I read recently that The State of Canada’s Birds 2012 Report estimates that outdoor cats kill 100 million birds each year in Canada.  In the same article I learned that outdoor cats are the greatest source of human-caused mortality for birds and mammals in the US.  Studies show that a bell on your cat’s collar is practically useless in preventing this killing.
    I apologize if I’ve bored anyone with a column almost exclusively devoted to birds. I had hoped to report on some early bloom in the garden.  Alas, every potential early bloomer is still covered in snow. Nevertheless, even the melting snow is interesting.  I forget from year to year how snow melts. It doesn’t just melt evenly from top to bottom.  It seems to develop holes and to cave in here and there.  I often think of it as “decaying” rather than simply melting.
Get  out! And enjoy!

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