Well, that a wrap, folks! The year has come full circle and so has this blog. Today marks one year since my first blog in December 2020. It’s time to say goodbye (and good riddance?) to 2021 as we move into the new year. It is also the start of a new season. Winter Solstice marked the beginning of winter here in the northern hemisphere.
Winter in Cape Breton can be challenging (this is what is known as an ‘understatement’) but is also a time of spectacular beauty. While this island is renowned for its brilliant fall foliage, I am even more amazed by winter’s wizardry. So in the spirit of looking forward to the season (because it’s coming – whether we like it or not) here are a few offerings from winter’s art gallery, taken over the years.
I wrote about the rise and fall of L’il pond in Ups and Downs in the Holler. That was summertime, but pond goes up, pond goes down, all the year round. In winter, high water freezes around the trees, leaving them with fancy ice skirts as the water level drops.
Snow snow snow! To borrow from Joni Mitchell, I’ve looked at snow from both sides now. That’s my driveway in 2019 on the top left. The drifts were beautifully carved, but tough to navigate – even on snowshoes! Once I got to the road I had to dig out my car and then dig through the plough bank, only to have the snowplough do another run and fill it back in. Argh! And yet, and yet. I still love snow. It blankets us in beauty and offers up an infinite variety of textures, shadows and light – a feast for the eyes and spirit.
Snow buds blossom, twigs grow crystal leaves, and bare branches dress up in white lace – fleeting beauty that vanishes in the flash of the sun.
Ice art is hard and edgy, all sharp angles and high contrast. Snow art is about softness and curves. Snow blankets the shrubby ground and drapes prickly spruce and twiggy bare branches to create a serene snowscape.
The pond art gallery is always changing the display. One day it was soft, concentric circles and another day it was this jagged black and white mosaic of polygons.
Winter plays with colour light shadow texture shape its wonders to create
Don’t you love these creations? They look to me like fairy goblets, all ready to flip upside down and fill with a bit of bubbly! Cheers and Happy New Year, Fairy People of the forest!
Well, that’s it for this month. I’m keeping it short and simple today since I’m sure you’re all busy getting dressed up for the Big New Year’s Eve Party! (Hah! Just kidding ;-)
This blog has given me the opportunity to share my intense love for this place. I will continue to write about life at Highland Holler in 2022, but I’m giving myself a break on the ‘one-blog-per-month’ schedule. It felt way too much like being back in school – always procrastinating in the face of a looming deadline. However, I still have much to share – about fishers, fungi, and cute newts – not to mention more offerings from winter’s wonderful art gallery – so stay tuned in 2022!
‘It was harder than I remembered.’ So reads my diary entry for May 14, 2021, describing a steep climb up to a ridge. I was reviewing my hiking notes in preparation for setting off, once again, to tramp up and down the hills behind my house: the highland part of Highland Holler. As I wrote in my very first blog, Bared Trees and Barred Owls, I enjoy exploring the highlands in November. The lack of foliage makes for more open views, so it’s easier to orient myself relative to ocean, hills and valleys as I bushwhack around the forest. Plus it’s just so tempting to see what’s atop that ridge, beyond that bend, or down that gully.
These forest forays are exciting, exhausting and sometimes a bit unnerving. I love the anticipation, the immersion in the forest, the delight of discovery, the serendipity of stumbling across one forest treasure while searching for another. I typically return home tired and relieved but exhilarated.
But earlier this month I went on an exploratory hike that left me steeped in frustration. I’d set out in hopes of finding an alternate route into a neighbouring valley. I’d not only failed to do that, I’d had to backtrack three (three!) times. Worse, I’d had to backtrack twice where I thought I was on familiar ground. I felt both humbled and disappointed with myself. Argh! How had this happened?
That short note in my diary tells the tale: ‘It was harder than I remembered.’ It is always harder than I remember. Whenever I revisit the special places I’ve discovered or retrace routes I’ve found, the walks are invariably longer, steeper, bushier, boggier, more confusing than I expected. The footing is trickier and the route more difficult to navigate. And did I mention bushier? Oh yes, it’s always bushier than I remember.
Memory is a funny thing. It is not a record, like a videotape or even my diary. It is a story we create. We edit, filter, revise. We forget. We embellish. We mould and shape until – voila! A memory. My diary entry reveals that my memories lean toward the sunny side of life. I tend to filter out the negative and retain the positive.
So I remember wandering in an old-growth stand of hemlock but forget pushing through straggles of spruce to get there. I remember the wide-open birch forest atop a ridge but forget how the hummocky ground makes for awkward footing. And when I set out on that hike last May, I remembered finding the babbling brook that led me all the way up to a ridge and an old survey post. But I’d forgotten about the steep slopes, the long boggy section, the bushy bits (of course) and how confusing it was near the top when the brook vanished underground. My rosy memories ran up against a wall when confronted with reality.
I have often wondered if optimism and pessimism have more to do with the past than the future. That is, those of us who tend to view the past through rose-coloured glasses also tend to imagine a rosier future. Realists manage to see both past and future through clear lenses. And those who tend to filter out the good bits from their past and hang onto the bad may be more likely to see the days ahead through gloomy grey-tinted spectacles.
Rose-tinted specs make for pleasant memories but there is a downside. I considered my hike a ‘failure’ that day in early November because I had, temporarily at least, set aside memories of all my previous hiking ‘failures’. What happened that day was not an anomaly – a rare instance of failing to get to my objective or having to retrace my steps. It was, in fact, the norm.
Sitting there in my funk that November day I was forgetting how many tries it took before I finally found a detour over the ridge I described in Bared Trees and Barred Owls. Or how long it took me to find an old grown-in shortcut, only to lose it again and have to find it anew. I was forgetting the number of times I searched for that old survey post before I found it at last, hidden behind new stands of spruce.
Such experiences are humbling but in a good way. They are not failures but rather part of the process, of learning the lay of the land. No topographic map or aerial image can convey the rich density of the forest, the complexity of the geography, the myriad hidden waterways. That has to be discovered on the ground, step by step, walk by walk.
So a funny thing happened twelve days after my humbling hike. It was a rare dry day after a series of rainy days. I headed upslope into the same area, hoping to flag more of an old ridge-top survey line. My son and daughter-in-law had been here for a visit and we’d managed to find part of the old blaze trail that had become obscured by young upstart growth and ancient fallen giants. We’d gotten as far as the base of a short, steep slope and I was keen to see if I could find the next blaze mark and extend the line.
Nature doesn’t do straight lines but surveyors do. I had to scramble up that slope using all fours, but was rewarded by finding two more blazes up top. I peered around, looking for the next blaze mark. The area looked oddly familiar. Could it be?
Then I spotted some orange flagging tape. Twelve days earlier I had climbed up to this very spot, unaware that I’d reached the old survey line. That afternoon I’d turned back, taking down my flagging tape as I retraced my steps. My attempt at route-finding had failed, so why would I ever be back? By luck, I’d missed a single bit of flagging tape.
Ah, sweet serendipity! On that earlier hike I was looking for a route into the next valley and instead stumbled upon the blaze line. Twelve days later I was looking for a blaze mark and instead spotted an overlooked piece of flagging tape. Twice I’d arrived at this same spot, high up on a forest ridge at 2 pm on a short November day. Once again I resisted the temptation to keep exploring and turned back for the long walk home. But this time I was more cheered than disappointed. Instead of slip-sliding my way back down that steep slope I could retrace my earlier, easier descent. It had only been twelve days and for once my memory served me well. Even without the flagging tape I was able to find my way down the slope, then over and across into a familiar creek valley.
I arrived home, exhausted and relieved as usual. I hadn’t gotten any further than my earlier hike, but far from being frustrated I was totally chuffed. Thanks to my ‘failure’ I now have an alternate route up to the old blaze line. I’m eager to get back up there and continue my explorations, but even this rosy-spectacled gal suspects that I may have to wait until next spring.
Sue McKay Miller November 30th, 2021
p.s. That last hike was on Sunday, November 21st. Starting the next night Cape Breton was inundated with a deluge of rain. I measured 191 mm at the Holler but some areas north of here received almost 300 mm. Bridges and roads were washed away, stranding some people on the far side. The Cabot Trail, the only road in these parts, is ruptured in several places, separating nearby communities. The damage is terrible.
L’il Pond rose so high it flooded into a nearby low-lying area, and many trees are still standing in water. All the local brooks, rivers and waterfalls filled to overflowing. But I was lucky and stayed high and dry. My thoughts are with all of those dealing with the consequences of catastrophic rains here in Cape Breton and out west in BC.
One of the things I love best about my life in the forest is spotting wild animals. In The Secret Lives of Animals I wrote about following animal tracks in the snow, but on occasion I have the great good luck of spotting them in the fur, feather, snakeskin and such. I live next to a pond that serves as habitat, watering hole, hunting ground, playground and swimming hole for various critters. After freeze-up, it becomes an animal highway, a convenient shortcut through the woods. I get to watch the comings and goings of all sorts of animals from the comfort of my cabin, taking care to interfere with their lives as little as possible. They were, after all, here first. I’m the newcomer.
I saw a wide variety of critters during my eight years in the yurt. But camping out in a tent – even a large, luxurious tent like the yurt – was challenging, especially during the wild Cape Breton winters. About six years in I began to make serious plans to build a house (not literally build it – I can’t build a bookshelf, let alone a house). Or perhaps I made serious plans to build a deck, and I had to design a house to attach the deck to.
There were delays (there are always delays) but some seven years ago I finally moved into my little log house, not far from the yurt. And since then I have made ample use of my deck, high above the sloping ground that leads down to the pond. Sometimes friends or, more recently, family, have joined me on the deck. But we humans are not the only ones who have enjoyed this addition to the land. It seems that many of my wild neighbours think the deck is here for them.
The influx of visitors accelerated after I finally got around to putting a railing around the deck, a safety feature for me, but apparently a pleasant perch for them. Critters seem to appreciate the high vantage point of the railing. It is a convenient place to relax in the sun, to be on the lookout for lunch, to avoid becoming lunch. Or to run around like a crazed thing and taunt the human in the house (I’m looking at you, Squirrel).
Here are a few of the deck visitors I’ve managed to capture with my clunky old camera. Apologies for the blurry pics – animals that are perfectly posed have a knack of moving just as I click. Not to mention these are often shot through window screens and less-than-crystal-clear windows. Hats off to wildlife photographers for their great skill and patience in getting amazingly crisp, clear shots of animals. It is a challenging art form.
I wrote about the adventures of this barred owl, nicknamed Ollie, in Hoots in the Holler. Ollie spent much of the day hanging around the house, looking for a squirrel snack. Find out how that went in my blog from January 2021.
In February I wrote about finding mysterious tracks in the snow in The Secret Lives of Animals. Well, it turns out there’s a new kid in town, a real tough customer. I suspect that, just like Ollie, this fisher is looking for a squirrel to snack on.
Hummingbirds like to take a breather on the railing before returning to the feeder. This male ruby-throated hummingbird was vigilant even while resting, making sure no other hummer honed in on his territory.
Other birds, blue jays and dark-eyed juncos, drop by onto the deck, but never long enough for a photo-op. Insects make for better models. They are ectotherms (cold-blooded) and like to soak up the warmth of the sun, especially in autumn when the temperatures drop.
Last July I spotted a large owl on the railing and thought: ‘Ollie’s back!’ Until he turned his head around. ‘Whoa – that ain’t Ollie!’ It was a great horned owl. What a treat!
Okay, this blog is about wild visitors to my deck, and, strictly speaking, this young bull moose is not actually on the deck. But given that it is really hard for a moose to get up on my deck (phew!) and that he is practically on what will someday be the lower deck (these things take time) my moose neighbour made the cut.
That’s it for my wild deck visitors – at least for now. But not every animal who hangs out on the deck is all that wild. My son and daughter-in-law and their dog came out to the Holler for a visit and we enjoyed lots of deck time. My grandpuppy thought it was a grand place to have a snooze. Perhaps he was dreaming of running with the wolves.
Ah, summer in Cape Breton. Sun and sand and the salty sea. Seaweed and Seagull Dreams. It is a precious season and all the more treasured because it is so vanishingly short. People soak up the sun, bob about in waves, and mess about with sand and stone. At the beach we can all be children again, building sand castles, scooping out moats, building teetering towers of stone.
At the end of each summer’s day, as the sun dips down towards the Highlands, people round up their children and pack up their beach gear and head off for supper, leaving the beach to the gulls and crows and the odd hanger on. (Yes, that would be me.) I like to stroll the beach at the end of the day as the setting sun turns the sea into rippling mother of pearl. On these strolls I see the things left behind by beachgoers.
Some leave nothing but footprints in the sand. Others leave their names or declarations of love in large loopy letters in the wet sand at the water’s edge. A few unenlightened souls leave their garbage behind for someone else to clean up. Some items are left behind by accident, the stray flip flop that fell off a toddler’s foot, the bright blue beach bucket, the misplaced sunglasses.
But some people leave behind beach creations, as delightful and ephemeral as summer itself. Beach art is not meant to last for generations or even days. It is, by its very nature, transient. And that is why it is so special. People at the beach, be they six or sixty, create for the pure joy of creating. It’s fun to shape damp sand with human hands, to pick out the perfect beach stone to add to a tower, to adorn a sandcastle with twigs and scraps of seaweed. The pleasure is in the making, not the keeping. And at the end of the day the makers walk away, leaving their creations to be swept away by wind and tide. Beach art appears and then vanishes. The sand, the rocks, the twigs and seaweed remain, returning to their own random beauty.
These beach creations, from the elaborate to the humble, always make me smile. I’ve given some of them a longer life by capturing them with my camera and putting them in this photo blog. To the anonymous makers, my beach hat is off to you. If you see your own creation featured here, let me know in the comments below.
Just as sand castles are washed away by the cyclic tide, so summer is swept away by the cyclic journey of Earth around the sun. We recently swung from summer to autumn on the Fall Equinox. Now the days are getting shorter, the air and the ocean are cooling, the leaves are beginning to turn. Like sand castles and balanced stone towers, summer is a fleeting thing.
And so castles made of sand
fall in the sea
- Jimi Hendrix
Life too is a fleeting thing. Every living thing, from mayfly to towering white pine, human to seagull, moose to mollusc to moss, has its moment in the sun and then passes, returning to the elements. And just as with sand castles and summer, it is that very transience of life that makes it so very precious.
During our brief Cape Breton summer I emerge from the forest to spend my days by the sea, a seasonal migration of sorts. The wide open blue horizon replaces leafy green foliage. I trade the still waters of L’il Pond for the dynamic waves and tides of the Atlantic. I love to float, suspended between the endless blue sky and the briny sea. And as I float I watch the seagulls, creatures of sky and sea.
Our local CBC morning show features ‘popcorn’ interviews with local folk of note. One fun question is: ‘If you were an animal, which animal would you be?’ Ignoring the nitpicky quibble that humans are animals, it is intriguing to hear the answers. Cats and dogs rate highly, and eagles are quite popular. Once upon a time I might have said coyote, but I have switched my fantasy animal to the seagull.
Seagull? Who would choose to be a seagull? Like coyotes, rats, and Rodney Dangerfield, these critters don’t get a whole lot of respect. Even the fictional seagull from Richard Bach’s 1970 bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull wasn’t overly impressed by his own kind. (I wonder if Jonathon, whose reckless high altitude dives often resulted in catastrophic crashes, wasn’t really a gannet in a gull’s body.) I find it interesting that many of the most despised animals have a lot in common with Homo sapiens: They are clever, opportunistic, and highly adaptable. They thrive in a variety of habitats and will eat just about anything. Sound familiar?
But I don’t want to be a parking lot, french-fry scavenging urban gull. My human-self fled the concrete jungle, so it makes sense that my seagull-self prefers wharves to Walmarts.
The question remains: Why a seagull? Well, since this is an exercise of the imagination, why not fulfill that age-old human fantasy and fly? But none of that flap, flap, flapping of wings to stay aloft, thank you very much. I want to soar, to ride the wind, to swoop and swerve. Many birds, from raptors to ravens, can soar, but seagulls embrace both my elements, air and water. So, with apologies to the Steve Miller Band, I want to fly like a seagull.
Seagulls are adept fliers who seem to relish gusty, windy days when they can hover, zoom, maneuver, circle and soar. They are often out and about on stormy days when air and ocean are turbulent and wild. Gulls are at ease on the roughest seas, phlegmatic floaters on chaotic surf. When a whitecap threatens to engulf a gull, she flaps her wings and flits to the backside of the breaker. Rough seas churn up all kinds of critters, a buffet for gulls and seals alike.
Speaking of buffets, these birds of sea and sky are also pretty nimble on land. After beach-going humans head home for supper the gulls and crows swoop in, scouring the sand for tasty morsels: some spilled chips or cheezies, a bit of a bun, a sandy section of hot dog.
Gulls’ webbed feet are ideal for swimming and work well enough on land, but they are not suited for perching in lofty treetops. No worries! We humans have provided plenty of perching options for gulls. Light standards, telephone poles, and gabled rooftops offer gulls high, safe and comfy perches where they can chill out and look down on us.
Unlike so many animals, gulls (like the aforementioned rats and coyotes) thrive alongside humans. Seagulls flock behind fishing boats, swoop in to swipe food, scavenge our leftovers, and sit atop our structures. They may not be as brainy as corvids or parrots, or have as complex vocalizations, but gulls are no birdbrains. Seagulls are smart and they’re survivors.
I’ve been using the generic word ‘seagull’ here, but bird-nerds may wonder what type of gull. I initially favoured the great black-backed gull, our largest gull with the same wingspan as an osprey. But I’ve switched over to the less sartorial herring gull. They aren’t the prettiest bird, but then gulls don’t need to impress us, just other gulls. He may look as attractive to her in his conservative grey and white plumage as a peacock does to a peahen. And unlike black-backed gulls, herring gulls also live on the west coast, which is where my seagull-self will live.
My human-self loves living in Cape Breton, but my seagull-self prefers the west coast, with its milder winters and protected islands. A Gulf Island Gull. This is fitting, since it was on Vancouver Island where I had my seagull epiphany, some 9 years ago.
I was visiting my son and daughter-in-law in Victoria, BC, in their tiny 4th floor apartment overlooking the Juan de Fuca Strait. There was much to marvel at from that vantage, but I was entranced by the seagulls. It was the first time I’d watched them at flight level rather than looking up from below. I watched these fancy fliers hover in headwinds, adjusting their wings to hold steady in buffets and gusts. I watched as they turned tail and zoomed downwind – Whoosh! – at high speed. I saw them swoop down from the top of the building right in front of the window. Like all wild animals, gulls are always on the lookout for lunch, but we humans aren’t the only animals who play. I couldn’t help but feel that these birds were having fun racing with the wind.
Along with the usual telephone and light poles, west-coast gulls can perch on a far more impressive pole. Thunderbird Park features an array of totem poles. My daughter-in-law and I were looking up, way up, admiring the magnificent carvings, when we burst into laughter. A seagull was perched on the very top of the totem pole, higher than Eagle or Raven or even the mighty Thunderbird, surveying the world below like the lord of all creation.
I also envied the gulls squatting on offshore rocks that only emerged during low tide. Oh to be able to set myself down on some rocky crag, heedless of rising tides or rogue waves. One afternoon we were sitting on a secluded beach, looking across the water at four herring gulls on an offshore rock. After a while three of the birds flew off, but the fourth chose to linger. It struck me that, while these birds of a feather sometimes flock together, they also feel free to do their own thing. My fascination with gulls grew.
Back home in Cape Breton I began paying more attention to our local gulls. One summer I felt a special kinship with a particular herring gull. At the end of the day, after the beach emptied, I would spot this same gull (I presume) perched out on the rocky breakwater, catching the last rays of the sun. I would be sitting onshore, already in the shade, mesmerized by the kaleidoscopic play of the light on the water. Each of us was alone, content in our sunset solitude.
I watched that herring gull swim alongside the breakwater, in search of a seafood supper. Boom, he’d plunge his head underwater and come up with a small crab or lobster in his bill. He’d fly his prize over to the beach and drop the unlucky crustacean onto the wet sand. Then (ugh!) he’d rip its legs off one by one, swallowing them whole, shell and all. This is horrid to watch, as the doomed creature tries to escape on fewer and fewer appendages.
Now I also like to eat shellfish, although I prefer it cooked and served with melted butter and a glass of chilled white wine. And there is currently a fierce debate about whether or not crustaceans, or other invertebrates without a centralized brain, can feel pain. But in a Darwinian world the gull’s technique makes sense – a smart gull doesn’t let his supper run away. I’ve now seen this practice many times and always feel both fascinated and repulsed. Our animal fantasies tend to break down when we blend in too much animal reality.
But hey, in the end this is all just a seagull dream. I suspect we are the only animals who imagine ourselves into other beings and bodies. We become seagulls and superheroes, ancient Egyptians and futuristic space explorers. Humans may not have wings, but in our imaginations? We soar.
So a funny thing happened. Three days after I posted my June blog on the impact of low water levels, it rained. And rained. And rained. The skies dumped 101 mm in 36 hours. Before this deluge the pond had largely drained into the permeable glacial till. The shallow waters that remained were covered with yellow lily pads and flowers.
When the rain began overnight on July 3rd I didn’t expect to see much change in the water level. This time of year, any rain is sucked up thirsty plants to nourish the rich foliage and transpired back into the air. I mentioned as much to a friend who had braved the torrential downpour for a visit.
So I was gobsmacked when we looked out at the pond after some food and chat. I’d just eaten lunch but now I had to eat my words. The lily pads and flowers had vanished. We watched as the rain poured down and the pond rose up, right before our eyes. The lakes on the highland plateau feed abundant brooks and freshets that follow gravity’s lure to the lowest ground, right here in the holler. This funneling effect leads to dramatic rises in water level that never cease to boggle my mind.
Later that day I took a gander down to the water’s edge. A few days earlier I’d photographed some blooming blue flag irises, high on the banks above the water. Now they were semi-submerged. The rising water had covered the field of marsh grass. And the dried-out pool I described in my June blog, with its sad remnants of desiccated tadpoles, was rapidly refilling with fresh, clean rainwater.
Even after the rain stopped the pond continued to rise as highland waters tumbled into the holler. The water inundated the irises and other flowers, eddied among shrubs and brambles, and reached up to wet the feet of maple and birch. That dried-out pool filled and filled until it spilled over the land bridge that had separated it from the main pond and doomed its tadpole denizens a week earlier. The pond was, once again, a single wee lake, just as it had been back in April.
Too late, alas, for many stranded tadpoles, although at least the bucketfuls I relocated now have plenty of water and time to transform. In Frogs, Globs, and Pollywogs I described my pollywog bucket brigade, saying: ‘I don’t think there’s an ecological issue with this – it’s all one body of water much of the year and is rejoined in summer if a post-tropical storm dumps torrential rains.‘ Well, true enough. But that bit I put in italics? It’s such a rare summer event that I didn’t actually expect it to happen. And I certainly didn’t expect it to happen just four days after I wrote those wistful, hopeful words.
And what a transformation! Water is the giver of life. Every spring, as the snow melts and the freshets and brooks flow from the highlands to the holler, rushing water is the sound and scent and sight of renewal. So it was strange but exciting to feel that sense of rebirth in early summer. An unexpected gift. Even the local critters were rejuvenated (or maybe just confused?) by this spring-like transformation. The peepers, silent except for a few stragglers, revived their lively chorus. Bird song filled the evening air. It was as if the year had rewound back to early May.
Except … not. I felt a whiff of cognitive dissonance. The rushing waters, frog chorus and birdsong of spring were juxtaposed against the deep-green, chlorophyll-laden foliage of summer. The shoots and sprouts of Spring Ditty had exploded into a jungle of shrubs and wildflowers and brambles engulfing my home. The high water, while welcome, felt a bit weird.
And so this topsy-turvy year continues. It’s been a funny time to begin a blog. Before I started this project I jotted down topics that seemed suited to each season. But I’ve had to scratch some planned blogs (including the one for this month) and several of my posts been slightly out-of-sync with 2021’s slightly out-of-sync seasons. Unlike the deadly heat dome and ongoing drought out west, which has been positively attributed to climate change, it’s difficult to unravel how much of our funny weather is due to climate change and how much is down to the usual variation in weather.
Weather is a chaotic (that is, nonlinear) system and it’s particularly chaotic on this island, jutting out into the Atlantic and buffeted by systems from north, south and west; from land and sea. The deluge that filled the pond wasn’t even a named storm – neither Claudette nor Elsa – but just some random rain event. In Calgary I often heard the old saw ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes’, but it’s even more apropos in my adopted home.
So pond goes up, pond goes down. I’ll have to wait until next year to see if there are noticeable impacts from this late inundation, but the species that survive and thrive here, from amphibians to alders, are adapted to rapidly changing water levels. Conversely, on a global scale, change is so rapid and extensive that many species don’t have time to evolve and adapt. Species have always gone extinct, but anthropogenic changes are sending the rate of extinction skyrocketing.
When I worked as a geophysicist I would present my research at scientific conventions and meetings. Like most researchers, I always ended by presentations with words to the effect that ‘more research is needed’. It’s a cliche in science, but it’s also true. Scientific discoveries don’t lead to some totality of knowledge, but to ever more questions. No one today says, ‘Yep, we figured everything out. We’re all done here.’ (Many scientists did say that in the late 19th century, shortly before Einstein blew their minds with relativity theory and Bohr et al. dove down the bizarre rabbit hole of quantum mechanics.) Scientific research is a bit like tackling the mythic multi-headed Hydra: Chop off one head and two more grow back.
My learnings about this place are not remotely systematic or scientific. Rather they are the accumulation of casual observations, recorded in stacks of notebooks and journals over the past 17 years. But the principle still holds. The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. And just when I think I’ve gained some understanding of the patterns, cycles, and seasons of this place, my assumptions are turned upside down and inside out, as if I’m in some Traveling Wilburys’ song.
So nature continues to surprise and humble me. In the never-say-never department: I wrote In my June blog about swimming in the pond, saying: ‘Not a hope of that this year’. Hah! Joke’s on me. I did indeed swim with frogs. I floated high above lily pads and flowers in that fresh, clean water. And as July passed, those drowned lilies grew up, up, up, drawn toward the light, and the water dropped down, down, down, lured by gravity. Now, at the end of July, those yellow lilies are, once again, breaching the surface to kiss the sun.
A lot has happened here in ‘Frog Holler’ since I posted Funky Frogs. Plenty of matching and hatching, but also, sadly, some dispatching. On the matching front: the wood frogs have long since ceased their wacky quacks. A few lonely bachelor peepers are still hoping for an invite to the mating dance, but I’d say their chances are pretty slim at this late date. Last – but not least – to join the mating game were the green frogs. These big fellas show up late to the pond party and then raise a ruckus. Hmm … reminds me of some people I know.
Green frogs are by far the biggest frogs in this pond and are (surprise!) green. Their call is a percussive ‘gonk’ that is often compared to a banjo twang. Unlike chorus frogs such as peepers, green frogs are more soloists, but sometimes a gang gets gonking back and forth across the water and it gets rather loud. Due to their size, these frogs are quite startling to encounter on pond walks. They tend to be less skittish than their smaller cousins, being literally ‘a big frog in a small pond’.
Even the green-frog tadpoles are big – they take two years to mature and in their second year look positively freaky, a kind of FrankenFrog with a full-sized frog-head attached to a tadpole-tail but no torso. Seeing dozens of these scatter in the shallows is a strange sight indeed.
The two species I see most often are similar in appearance and mating calls: pickerel frogs and leopard frogs. Both tend to be ‘seen and not heard’ – at least by human ears – as their softer calls are drowned out by the loud crowd. The calls have been likened to a soft snore but I’ve heard them on quiet May afternoons and, frankly, it sounds to me more like a fart. A frog fart. Again, frogs are just funny.
I see pickerel and leopard frogs in a range of sizes, from super-cute wee froglets to mature adults (2-3 years old). They like to sunbathe at the pond’s edge and they usually sense me before I see them. This lumbering giant startles them – perhaps my looming shadow, or the tremor from my seismic footfall. They leap into the water – boing! – and make me jump. Off they go, diving for cover, hiding under the aquatic plants or burrowing into the silty debris until the giant moves on.
On pond perambulations in late May I began to see the results of all that quacking, peeping, croaking, twanging and trilling. Gobs and gobs of jellied egg blobs in the water. Dozens of round eggs are clumped into a jellied mass and attached to a submerged twig. Each egg holds a single visible embryo, wriggling around and feeding on algae that colours the eggs green. Apart from the tiny peeper eggs I can’t tell one blob from another. Or is it even a frog blob? The Holler is also home to newts and salamanders, who are so amazing they will be featured in a future blog.
As May turned to June the water level in the pond dropped dramatically. This is an annual event; the pond fills to overflowing as related in Spring Ditty “the snow melt grows the pond into a lake” and then gradually lowers as the water drains into the permeable glacial till. But last winter was a weird one (see April and the Albedo Effect) and the snow melted a month early. We are feeling the impact of that now, with very low water levels. Last June I was swimming in my pond. (Fancy folk swim with dolphins – I swim with frogs!). Not a hope of that this year. By mid-June the pond was down to levels more typical in mid-summer.
As the pond drops, some egg blobs become stranded. Sentimental as I am, I pick them up and toss the whole blob into deeper water. The thing is, I can see the wee embryos wriggling around inside the eggs and I just can’t let them melt into mush. So I scoop and toss, scoop and toss. I have a history of this sort of thing. When I was a child my best friend and I embarked on similar quixotic endeavors, such as putting earthworms, stranded on sidewalks by heavy rains, back on the grass.
In addition to the egg-glob toss, I often do a pollywog bucket brigade. As the pond drops the deeper areas separate from some shallower pools. A pool may dry out while still teeming with tadpoles who haven’t had time to metamorphose. Without water, they die. So I scoop wiggly pollywogs into a bucket, ferry them over the high ground, and release them into deeper parts of the pond. I don’t think there’s an ecological issue with this – it’s all one body of water much of the year and is rejoined in summer if a post-tropical storm dumps torrential rains.
But then again, would the overall frog population be better off without my meddling? After all, frogs have evolved a successful reproductive strategy. Large mammals have few young but tend to them and fiercely protect them until maturity: 1 year for moose, 2 years for bears, 32 years for modern humans (Hee hee). But frogs, like so many organisms, play the odds game. Lay oodles of eggs and swim away.
Almost all those offspring will be eaten or die somehow before they reach sexual maturity, but odds are that a few will survive long enough to keep the species going. One spring, a couple of years on, those few survivors will thaw out or emerge from the mud. The surviving males will peep and quack and croak and trill and twang. The surviving females will select a mate and lay gobs and gobs of egg blobs. And the cycle of life and death will continue.
Note: At no time did this reproductive process require a human being tossing egg blobs or bucketing pollywogs. But as I wrote in Hoots in the Holler, nature isn’t all flowers and rainbows. Natural selection has resulted in an astonishing array of organisms but it is not a kindly process. I am trying to learn to accept nature as it is, not as I would wish it to be. To accept these deaths as being as crucial to the cycle as the surge of new life that so delights me every spring. But it is a difficult lesson to learn and I struggle.
I once heard a lecture by the late, great evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould. He explained the role of ‘contingency’ in evolution and gave the example of a successful species going extinct because its pond habitat dries up. And while frogs and other amphibians are in trouble globally, the frogs in the Holler are not about to go extinct because a shallow pool dries up. It is not the scientist in me that is driven to toss egg blobs and bucket pollywogs – it is the sentimentalist. I fret over these wee creatures like a mother, but not like a mother frog. The frog mamas are lounging on lily pads while I run around rescuing stranded eggs and stranded tads. It is somewhat silly, perhaps futile, and certainly more emotional that rational. And that, of course, is why it is so very human.
I became fascinated with frogs soon after I moved to Highland Holler. It was hard not to – I’m surrounded by them here. There are green frogs, leopard frogs, pickerel frogs, wood frogs, toads, spring peepers – making a racket, hopping around, laying eggs, hatching into tadpoles, morphing into froglets and other such froggy business. But in this, my first frog-blog, I’m focusing on those heralds of spring: wood frogs and peepers.
I’m fond of all frogs but my favourites are wood frogs, first out of the gate in the great mating frenzy of spring. Wood frogs are amazing amphibians who can actually freeze solid during the winter – how cool is that? (Below zero cool!) They accomplish this astonishing act by flooding their cells with cryoprotectants, like glucose. When these frogsicles thaw out they initiate the spring singsong.
Wood frogs crack me up. These little fellas quack and cackle rather than croak, sounding like a coven of demented ducks. They can be quite vocal during the day. One sunny afternoon, soon after I moved into the yurt, I had the great good luck of watching wood frogs from my deck above the pond. The scene looked so idyllic, so serene, so blissful. Frogs were floating in their funny froggy way, heads above water, forelegs floating just below the surface, hind legs dangling. Basking in the sun … and then – bam! One frog scooted across the water and rammed into another from behind. The rammed frog dove to safety, replaced by his rival. Then they just all floated for a while. Until another frog abruptly turned torpedo and slammed into a floater. From my deckside view I could see a frog initiate his stealth attack and the ensuing amphibian collision.
Watching frogs play bump-em cars made for a very amusing afternoon, but I’m sure it’s serious business for the frogs. I presume (but don’t know) that this behaviour is the wood-frog equivalent of rams butting heads or moose wrangling antlers, i.e. males vying for females. The fellows woo the gals with their sexy quacks and then dominate their rivals by head-butting them out of the way. As with many animal species, it is the male frogs who sing (or peep, croak, quack, twang, snore, trill, and so on) to woo the females.
Spring peepers usually start in earnest a few days after the wood frogs. Spring and peepers are synonymous here in Cape Breton – there is even a ‘peeper report’ on our local CBC morning show where people call in when they hear the first peepers. (Gotta love living in a place with a peeper report!) As I related last month in the second verse of my Spring Ditty:
Well the other night I heard a little frog peep.
No one replied so he went back to sleep.
But the ice is melting and it won't be long
'til that froggy pond
is filled with song!
And that is how it happens. Early in the spring there is the odd tentative peep followed by silence. I can’t help but think of these ‘early-bird’ peepers calling ‘Hey, anyone else awake yet?’ or maybe ‘Anyone else thaw out yet?’ – because these wee frogs can also freeze solid. But as the ditty relates, it isn’t long ’til that froggy pond is filled with song’ – and then what a cacophony! For a short interval there are wood frogs, spring peepers, and, in some years, a few American toads – each toad trilling his own unique prolonged note.
The wood frogs are the ‘first-to-arrive, first-to-leave’ types. They are pretty much finished just as the peeper party is really getting raucous. The peeper chorus gets louder and louder as more frogs join in until it’s deafening. Peepers are everywhere: by the pond, in the woods, in the grass and shrubs. They are tiny – not much bigger than a toonie. But their explosive peep is so loud that my field guide says it’s the equivalent of a human talking as loudly as a jet aircraft. I believe it. At times it literally hurts my ears to stand outside, especially at the pond’s edge. While I lived in the yurt, it was almost deafening inside, given the minimal sound insulation and the water so nearby.
While these wee frogs make one helluva racket, they are actually quite hard to find. They tend to clam up if you get too close. One night in the yurt I heard one just outside and stepped out with my headlamp on. There was Mr. Peeper in a plant-pot saucer. He froze mid-peep. His vocal sac was fully inflated, his eyes bulging (as frog eyes do) and he looked quite comical (as frogs do). I turned off my headlamp before he exploded. I’ve seen a few others – clinging to the vinyl yurt window, hiding in a garbage can, squatting between the slats of an old lobster trap – but for the most part, these tiny guys are heard, not seen.
At first peepers call mainly in the evenings, but soon the peeper party goes on all night long – rowdy neighbours! The annual chorus reaches its crescendo sometime in June and then gradually diminishes – I presume as the females choose their mates and they hop down to the pond to do it froggy style. (Want details? Search ‘amplexus’.). The party ends a bit earlier each night until one night there is just one last lonely peeper left. If there is something hopeful about that first tentative peep, there is something sad about the last peeper calling ‘pick me! pick me! pick me!’ long after everyone else has gone home. I know, I know – I’m anthropomorphizing. My imaginings probably have nothing whatsoever to do with frog reality. But I can’t help it. I always feel badly for this last little guy, peeping away all on his lonesome.
Now, at the end of May, the wood frogs are quiet but the peeper party is still going strong. A few nights ago, on the full ‘flower’ moon, I stepped outside into the unseasonably warm night. The moon, huge and low in the south, was a rippling silver reflection in the pond. The sound of peepers filled the air, accompanied by a trilling toad – the first I’ve heard in years. A barred owl hooted in the distance. It was a magical moment. At least for now, at least here in the Holler, the frogs are all right.
Sue McKay Miller May 30, 2021
p.s. I’m a frog fan but not an expert. I welcome your observations, anecdotes and, if I’m in error, corrections in the comments below. Better photos of wood frogs or peepers also welcome. You will be credited, of course.
And now for something slightly different … and somewhat silly.
I wrote this ‘a cappella’ song some years ago. I have, on occasion, been inspired to sing it after a night of celebration and good cheer. There have been no such spring gatherings for the last two years – because Covid. But I did bellow it out into the Holler and it bounced back off the Highlands. Here are the lyrics.
Dark-eyed juncos jumping all around
picking up tidbits off the ground.
Red-breasted robin sings a cheerful song
and winter's snow
is almost gone.
And it feels like spring is coming to the Holler
Don't you think that we should sing and holler?
Well the other night I heard a little frog peep.
No one replied so he went back to sleep.
But the ice is melting and it won't be long
'til that froggy pond
is filled with song.
And it feels like spring is coming to the Holler
Don't you think that we should sing and holler?
Well hey there buddy budding on a tree,
thanks for the things that you do for me.
And to every little shoot and every little sprout
I'm so glad
that you're coming out.
And it feels like spring is coming to the Holler
Don't you think that we should sing and holler?
Well some ducks dabble and some ducks dive
but it feels like spring when the ducks arrive.
And the snow melt grows the pond into a lake
as the sleepy Holler
starts to awake.
And it feels like spring is coming to the Holler
Don't you think that we should sing and holler?
Don't you think that we should scream and holler?
So there you have it. The ditty works much better when sung. I think. Maybe. This song typically fits this time of year, but as I described in April and the Albedo Effect, this year has been anything but typical, so it’s a little off time-wise. The snow and ice, usually ‘almost gone’ by the end of April, actually melted three weeks ago.
Up until recently I did hear the odd little frog try a tentative peep, followed by silence. But last night the froggy pond echoed with a chorus of spring peepers for the first time this year. The wood frogs, as usual, beat the peepers by a few days and are quacking away like drunken ducks.
Speaking of ducks, the ditty did fit, with a pair of dabblers (American black ducks, left) and a pair of divers (common goldeneyes, right) hanging about for a while now. I don’t have a zoom lens so the photos are fuzzy, but the male goldeneye is laying his neck along his back to woo the female. She doesn’t seem overly impressed.
I hope this ditty brought a smile to your face as we head into a two-week ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown here in Nova Scotia. Next month back to more serious topics like, say, funny frogs or dueling ducks. In the meantime, I hope the many signs of spring will delight, amaze, and lift your spirits.
Thanks to Lisa Finney for allowing me to use her photo of a dark-eyed junco. You can see more of her stunning photographs at www.somethingwithpictures.com.
It’s almost April. Ah, April in Cape Breton. The snow finally begins to melt, bare patches of ground appear on sunny slopes and … Wait! Didn’t that happen in January? Yes, it’s been a weird winter all right. By the end of January it looked like May, with the snow all but melted. Winter finally showed up in February. Then March roared in like a lion. Or maybe more like a polar-vortex bear? March felt like January, with windchills that could peel the skin right off your face. Until, suddenly, March switched from January to July.
What’s with the weather yo-yo? Well, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a climate scientist. But as I understand it, a wobbly jet stream is leading to wonky weather (excuse the technical terms). Here’s the gist of it: the jet stream is formed by the temperature contrast between the arctic and the mid-latitudes. The arctic is warming faster than mid-latitudes, reducing the temperature contrast between the two regions. As this temperature contrast decreases, the jet stream slows. As the jet stream slows, it meanders more, forms kinks, tends to stall. Next thing you know Texans are freezing while Cape Bretoners are sunbathing.
I was one of those Cape Bretoners sunbathing last week, which brings me to the albedo effect. Albedo (not to be confused with libido, which also relates to heat, but in a different sense) is defined in my Encyclopedic Dictionary of Exploration Geophysics as: ‘reflectivity of a free surface for electromagnetic radiation.’ Whether or not we know the word we all know what it is: I felt it personally during our unseasonable heat wave, sweltering under the sun in a black shirt. Dark colours have low albedo and absorb more radiation in the form of sunlight. Time to change! We wear white when we want to feel cooler because light colours have high albedo and reflect the sun’s rays.
Snow has high albedo, which in snowy climes we know all too well. No matter how cold it is, sunlight reflecting off snow can give us a bad sunburn or even cause snow blindness. So the arctic, with all that ice and snow, has high albedo, reflecting much of the sun’s energy back into space. But as noted above, it is warming faster than the rest of the planet. The reasons are complex and still under study, but the albedo effect is considered a contributing factor. Ice has high albedo, but rising temperatures are melting summer sea ice, exposing low-albedo dark water. Dark water absorbs more heat, melting more ice, exposing yet more water to absorb more heat and melt yet more ice. It’s a positive feedback loop.
The same positive feedback process is accelerating glacial retreat. Exposed rock at the foot of a glacier absorbs heat and melts ice, exposing more rock, melting more ice. During ice ages the albedo effect does the opposite. Growing glaciers reflect more and more of the sun’s rays, speeding up global cooling and accelerating ice-sheet advance.
The albedo effect is also underway right here in the Holler. The snow will melt anyhow as temperatures rise, but the albedo effect kickstarts the annual melt and then revs it into high gear. Sunlight reflects off high-albedo snow but is absorbed by low-albedo dark surfaces. Surfaces like tree trunks. The bark absorbs more of the sun’s radiation and soon a melt ring, or well, forms around the trunk. This exposes more of the trunk, which absorbs more heat, which melts more snow, until the sun’s rays touch the ground at the base of the tree. Now things really take off. The circle of bare ground absorbs more heat than the surrounding snow and expands ever outward. Eventually circles from nearby trees join up and the snow is in full retreat, skulking around in dark and shady places.
Any dark object illustrates the power of the albedo effect. A pile of frozen moose poop sets off a ring of snowmelt. Twigs, spruce needles, old leaves; all absorb the sun’s heat and sink into the snow as it melts beneath them. When you see a speck of stump or boulder or wood pile emerge, watch the albedo effect in action as the snow melts more rapidly from that spot, exposing more dark surface, absorbing yet more sunlight, melting yet more snow. The positive feedback loop is underway. The rate of melt is accelerating.
So there you have it. The albedo effect influences our climate on a global scale. It can accelerate global warming, like now, or global cooling during ice ages. But it is also a local phenomenon, one that we welcome every spring. It hastens the snow melt, warms the soil and sets the stage for the surging renewal of life. And before you know it, albedo leads to libido and the cycle of life continues. Happy spring!