Seagull Dreams

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?

Ta-da! Even this gull in all its glory doesn’t get a whole lot of respect.

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.

A juvenile black-backed gull goes for an afternoon stroll.
This particular bird is quite a character, acting almost tame.

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.

Sue McKay Miller
August 31st, 2021

Ups and Downs in the Holler

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.

On July 3rd L’il Pond had shrunk to a pair of shallow pools speckled with yellow lilies.

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.

By July 5th the pond had risen about 3 metres and spread across the whole holler.

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.

L’il Pond always rises high in spring and autumn, but seldom in summer.
(You can can see the roof of the yurt peeking through the forest across the pond.)

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.

Sue McKay Miller
July 30, 2021

Frogs, Globs, and Pollywogs

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 ones 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.

Gobs of egg blobs. These were laid in deeper water, but became partly exposed as pond levels dropped.

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.

Sue McKay Miller
June 29, 2021

Just a few from the bucket of pollywogs, released in different areas of the pond.

Funky Frogs

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.

Here are some websites with recordings of frog calls, photos, and information:

Spring Ditty

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.

Spring Ditty

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

Sue McKay Miller
April 26, 2021

April and the Albedo Effect

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!

Sue McKay Miller
March 26, 2021

It’s a “spring” flower!

The Secret Lives of Animals

One of my favourite winter activities is following animal tracks on snowshoe. The rest of the year we might see occasional animal signs: scat, browsed twigs, tracks in mud, scrapings and scratchings. But snow opens up the animal world like a book. Tracks tell tales: which animals are out and about, where they travel, how many, how often, how fast. When it comes to reading these signs, I am very much a novice, but just as a child learns to read ever more complex books, I learn to read the woods a bit better each year.

Over time I’ve learned to identify tracks from the usual suspects: coyote, snowshoe hare, red squirrel, ruffed grouse, deer, crow, and, of course, the unmistakable moose. But I’m often stumped as to how many animals. Do four sets of coyote tracks mean four coyotes? Or two passes by a pair? Or a lone coyote making multiple passes? This is especially tricky if the direction of travel is obscured in soft snow. Is this coyote coming or going? Half the time I don’t know if I’m coming or going.

As for coyote comings-and-goings, tracks taught me that the resident coyotes use predictable routes. One or two sets of tracks frequently crossed my drive at the same place, passed through the woods onto a trail, and followed the trail to the far side of the pond before veering back into the woods. The coyotes routinely traveled that same route, scouting their territory, marking it in the same spots.

No need to call in CSI to see who killed this ruffed grouse, aka ‘Mr. Partridge’. The culprits left their footprints all over the scene. This is clearly the work of the Coyote Gang.

My familiarity with the usual suspects helped me spot some not-so-usual tracks last winter. I was snowshoeing through old spruce forest when I spotted some tracks I’d never seen before. I had a suspect in mind (I’d glimpsed the backside of an animal a few days earlier) and my suspicions were soon confirmed. One morning I saw a fisher loping around the perimeter of the frozen pond. Later that day I heard a bizarre squabbling noise in the woods across the pond. A fisher emerged from the trees and dashed across the ice followed by a second in snarling pursuit. It was my first (but not my last) sighting of the makers of that new-to-me track.

Hmm … Who was here? These mysterious tracks were soon identified.

Otters are close kin to fishers (both are members of the weasel family Mustelidae and are a similar size). These ‘water weasels’ are by far the easiest and most fun animals to follow. I first came cross a strange groove in the snow years ago and followed it through the trees. The groove slalomed downslope among the spruce, dropping in and out of a tree well, then out onto the pond where it vanished beneath a crack in the ice. I backtracked the trail through the woods and saw that even on the flats the otter will run and slide, run and slide. The trail led through thick brush where I couldn’t follow, but it was as easy as ABC to keep track of that distinctive groove, all the way back to the river. Whenever I see an otter’s slide I feel a vicarious sense of fun.

Tracks are only part of the tale revealed in the snow. Detailed depressions, including hair imprints, show where a moose and her calf lay. One snowy winter even long-legged moose’s belly dragged through the snow. A drag mark between fox’s tracks hinted that she snagged a hare for supper. The snow can tell a tale of a hunt or a chase or a crow landing and flying away. And squirrel keeps popping his head out of snow tunnel openings like a living whack-a-mole – perhaps the very squirrel that used a snow tunnel to evade an owl? (see Hoots in the Holler) Tunnels beneath the snow provide cover and also warmth, the snow acting as an insulating blanket, for mice, voles and other wee critters.

Field guides are great, human guides are better, but the best way to learn a track is to see the animal lay it down, and, once they are safely out of the area, have a look. One winter I spotted a bobcat trotting just below my house. She’d no sooner disappeared into the trees when a second one showed up, hot on her heels. Once they’d gone about their bobcat business, I checked out the tracks. There was the round pad (coyote tracks are similar in size but more oval) but I also saw distinctive claw marks, contrary to field guide descriptions. In that case, crampon claws kept the cat from slipping on an icy slope.

This was taken along my driveway on a different winter. I do believe a bobcat was following in my footsteps – literally.

This has been an odd winter in Cape Breton (gives a whole new meaning to ‘Dry January’, eh?). But after a couple of snowfalls in February the landscape finally looks more wintery. One sunny afternoon I schlepped around the Holler and saw tracks galore on the crusty snow. I’d been feeling like it was just the squirrels and me out here, but, as always, the snow revealed that the wild ones are far more abundant and active than we realize. Amongst a plethora of coyote, hare and squirrel tracks, one mysterious trail had me absolutely stumped (below left). If you have any ideas on this – or any other – track, please leave a comment below.

This month’s blog just scratched the surface (hee hee) on the topic of tracks but I’ll leave it there for now. It snowed last night and I see fresh tracks over on the hillside. Time to strap on the snowshoes and see who’s out and about in the neighbourhood.

Sue McKay Miller
February 26, 2021

HOLD THE PRESSES! I did have a look at that fresh track yesterday afternoon and guess who? Otter had dropped by, sliding all the way from the top of the hill to the pond. Sometimes life is just too funny.

Hoots in the Holler

In Bared Trees and Barred Owls I wrote about seeing barred owls on three separate occasions during my November rambles. I first heard one of these owls while camping out on the newly-purchased land with my son and his lady back in 2003. The loud hoots startled we three humans but put the fear of hellfire into our husky-cross, Tundra. That dog would pick a fight with a dog twice her size just for kicks, but a series of eerie hoots in the night and she launched herself into the cab of my pickup and would not come out for the rest of the night.

Sometimes a dog would rather just stay in the truck and read the paper.

If Tundra thought that night noise was scary, it’s nothing compared to the screams and cackles and hoots and screeches these birds make in mating season. It’s as if a troop of monkeys are sounding the alarm in a tropical jungle. Except … it’s February in Cape Breton: Cold and snowy and nary a monkey for miles. I was still living in my yurt when an owl launched into a monkey call right outside one night (and trust me, there was virtually no sound barrier between me and that crazy cackling). Another owl responded from nearby. ‘Eek! I’m in an avian asylum!’ My journal entry for February 8, 2008, reads: ‘9 pm. Owls barking and shrieking and howling like banshees.’

After many years of hearing these owls vocalize I finally saw one while wandering through a mature spruce forest. A large brown and white bird flew by, maneuvering easily through the dense trees. What struck me, then and now, is how this bird, with a 42″ wingspan, flies in absolute silence, not a whisper of air from those large flapping wings. As silent as a stealth fighter and just as deadly to its rodent prey. I followed after the bird and then stopped. ‘Where’d he go?’ I looked up. A barred owl was staring back down at me with enormous brown eyes.

Most sources refer to these owls, like other owl species, as nocturnal, but I’ve seen them hunting during the day. Along with rodents, they hunt birds, amphibians, and even fish. I once saw one perched in a young maple above the pond. The next time I looked he was in the shallow water, flapping his way back to shore. There aren’t any fish in my pond, but he may have spotted a snake or a frog – although I think the prey got away.

In March 2019 I had a much closer encounter with a barred owl. I’ll call him (or her?) Ollie. (Not very original, I know.) I first spotted Ollie in the morning, hanging about in maple trees near the house. Cool. Then he landed on my deck railing, 6′ from the window. Wow! But suddenly his eyes widened, he reared up, exposing his yellow legs, jutted his head forward and hooted. Uh oh. He’d seen his reflection in the window – a rival owl in his territory! Alarmed, I opened the casement window slightly, hoping to erase the reflection. But Ollie launched himself at the window, talons first. Whoa! I yelled and covered my eyes. By the time I looked, Ollie was safely back in the maple tree, unharmed, though perhaps a bit muddled.

He stayed on his maple branch, watching and listening with the remarkable patience of predators. The squirrels that are usually tearing around here like furry speed freaks laid low, as did the voles and mice that inhabit the scattered piles of firewood and brush. Eventually a daring red squirrel emerged from a snow tunnel beside a tree and bolted towards the house. Ollie swooped down in swift pursuit. Both disappeared below the deck. I ran downstairs and looked out the basement window. There was Ollie, perched on a discarded canvas. His lunch had vanished into the maze of leftover lumber and other junk stored down there. Ollie stayed on the canvas frame, just outside the window, waiting for lunch to re-emerge.

Squirrel finally made a break for the trees and ran for his life, not in a straight line, but zigging and zagging. Ollie pursued, breaking and swerving, zig for zig and zag for zag. But owl didn’t have quite as much maneuverability as squirrel, and the intended prey zipped into a tree well, escaping into a snow tunnel just ahead of the outstretched talons.

Wanted! Have you seen this escape artist?

I must say, I felt badly for Ollie. It’s a tough life, being a predator. He’d come so close twice, only to fail twice and go hungry. Nature isn’t all flowers and rainbows. In the predator/prey dynamic, someone has to die. Predators who don’t kill will eventually starve to death. I kept spotting Ollie, always on a nearby tree, always on the lookout for lunch. Even when I went to pee, there he was, on another tree just outside the bathroom window. Hmm …

Ollie has lots of maple trees to choose from.

Later, I sat out on my deck and Ollie settled on a nearby maple tree branch, right at eye level. He was so close I could’ve touched him with a ten-foot pole. I kept a wary eye out in case he assumed the attack stance, but he seemed unthreatened by my proximity. He was mostly focused on the ground below us, but occasionally he’d do that owly head-twisty thing and look over at me. For Ollie, that nearby perch was probably just the best place to watch over the last place he’d spotted his elusive lunch. But for me? Sitting on my deck with an owl sitting in a tree just spitting distance away? It felt … almost companionable. Just me and my neighbour hanging out. Just another day in the Holler.

Sue McKay Miller
January 29, 2021

Note: To hear a barred owl, check out The second ‘song’ in the list is what I typically hear, and the ‘duet’ is a (somewhat mild) sample of mating mayhem. I’ve limited this blog to my own personal observations, so if you want more information about this fascinating owl (or any other bird for that matter) that site is an excellent resource.

Bared Trees and Barred Owls

I picked my way upslope, over rocks and hummocks, past straggly spruce and gnarly hardwoods. Once atop the ridge I looked around and tried to figure out where I was. I’d lived on this land for 16 years, but I’d never set foot on this ridge before. Dense young growth had blocked an old trail, forcing me to detour up this unfamiliar slope. My left eye was still stinging from being slapped – right on the eyeball! – by a springy young spruce tree I’d pushed past to gain the slope. (Note to self: add safety glasses to hiking kit.)

It was mid-November and the brilliant autumn leaf display was over. The treed highland slopes were mostly dull grey with occasional patches of deep conifer green. Not the time of year favoured by most hikers. But what November hiking lacks in the ‘ooh’ colour factor, it makes up for with other charms. To me November is a window of opportunity. If the fall foliage is a brilliant drapery, November is when the curtains are pulled back to reveal hidden forest treasures. A yellow birch growing out of an ancient granite boulder. A secret woodland creek leading up, up, up to a stand of old hemlock. A gnarled beech tree stretching outward and upward for the sun.

This window in time, between leaf fall and snow fall, is ideal for exploring the highlands. A month earlier I couldn’t ‘see the forest for the trees’, so to speak. But now the fall foliage had morphed into a colourful carpet and I could see for miles. Miles and miles, as the song says. I glimpsed the Atlantic Ocean beyond bared branches, far below to the east. To the west and north ranged the Cape Breton Highlands, rifted by narrow river valleys. I’d walked those valleys, visited the waterfall that I could hear roaring as it plunged over the edge of the highland plateau on its way to the sea.

When the deciduous trees drop their leafy veils they reveal their bones, as it were. Along with bark and leaf, a tree can be identified by its branching structure, its dendritic DNA. The white birch on the left is easily distinguished from its neighbouring red maple. You don’t really know a tree until you see it buck-naked in all its bare-limbed glory!

I made my way along the ridge, pausing to look way, way up at towering hemlock, white pine and yellow birch. Old growth forest. Minutes later the ridge ended, sloping away on three sides. I stopped and tried to relate my lofty lookout to those many valley walks. And to fit it all onto the topographic maps I’d been poring over. It’s been 16 years since I worked as a geophysicist and got paid to work with maps, but I still love them. Love that birds-eye view – which is exactly what I needed, standing there and pondering my position. And speaking of birds …

I caught a movement just below me. What was that? Broad brown wings, a large bird flying away downslope, navigating the dense forest with ease and in absolute, deadly silence. A barred owl! Magic.

Bared trees reveal a barred owl.

I watched the owl vanish into the forest below with the sense of wonder I always feel when I’m lucky enough to see one of these beautiful birds. Barred owls are sometimes active during the day, but this was the third time I’d seen one while out exploring – more sightings in 3 weeks than in 16 years of traipsing around these woods. And each in a different area, each flying away down a different hillside. Atheist, rationalist, scientist me had a fleeting thought: Is the barred owl my guardian spirit?

I made a few forays down the slope where the owl had flown, hoping to rediscover an old trail my son found years earlier. But unlike that owl I have to explore on foot. And at 64 I’m more old goat than mountain goat, so it was slow going. Days are exceeding short in November, as our planet hurtles through space towards the winter solstice, and nights are deadly cold. There was a chill in the air as the sun, far to the southwest this late in the year, dropped towards the highlands. There would be many more exploratory hikes, extending well into December (although no more owl sightings, so maybe not my guardian spirit after all?). Those forays enabled me to connect online topographic maps to on-foot real topography. But on that November afternoon, it was time to head home.

The fall foliage display doesn’t end after the leaves fall. It just morphs from flaming drapery to crazy carpet, enjoyed here by my much-missed husky cross, Tundra. Keep your red carpet, Hollywood – we prefer to stroll on a carpet of red maple leaves!

Sue McKay Miller
December 29, 2020