The Colours of Winter

Cape Breton boasts a coat of many colours. From the bright greens and colourful wild flowers of spring, deepening into the mature greens and late bloomers of summer, and climaxing with the spectacular flaming foliage of fall. This glorious palette is set against the brilliant blues of sea and sky.

Winter has its own special beauty, featuring wind-sculpted snow drifts, lace spun from ice, and abundant patterns and textures illuminated by light and shadow. I explored this aspect of winter in Winter’s Art Gallery. But for all its icy beauty, Winter seems to specialize in monochrome, like a photographer who works in black and white, or a blue-period Picasso.

This is a colour photo but you wouldn’t know it.

And yet there is colour in winter, all the more special because it stands out against winter’s white. So here is another wintry art gallery, this time focusing on the colours of winter, captured over the years here in the Holler. I hope these colours brighten your day as we make our way toward Spring Equinox. And remember, you can click on small pics to see them full size.

Digging the Winter Blues

Winter days are not always grey, and on sunny days those blues really pop when contrasted with bright snow white. What makes that sky so blue?

The short answer is Rayleigh scattering. We know that visible (white) light is composed of a spectrum of colours, displayed in rainbows and light refracted (bent) by a prism. Light has wave-like properties, and the red end of the spectrum has longer wavelengths while the blue and violet light have the shortest wavelengths. As yellow-white sunlight enters our atmosphere it interacts with air molecules and the waves are scattered. Short wavelengths are scattered the most and thus give the sky its blue colour. (Violet is the shortest wavelength, but there is more blue in sunlight and our eyes are more sensitive to blue.) At sunrise and and sunset, the light travels through more atmosphere. The blue light is scattered away, leaving the longer wavelength reds and oranges to delight our eyes.

Drift ice on the deep blue sea.

Why is the Ocean Blue?

Of course water reflects light like a mirror, as in this photo from Dogs and Drift Ice. But water also filters sunlight. Water molecules absorb more long-wavelength reds and oranges and leave behind the shorter-wavelength blues and blue-greens. So while a glass of water appears colourless, water does have a blue hue that we can see when looking into deep bodies of water like the ocean. Divers observe this blue light because it penetrates deeper into the water than long-wavelength red light.

Winter’s Pond Art

I feel very lucky to live above a pond that offers something for every season. I’ve written about L’il pond and its various inhabitants a number of times, but winter is a surprisingly dynamic season for this little body of water. It goes something like this: Ice forms on the surface as temperatures drop. Snow blankets the ice. Under the ice, just as in summer, (see Ups and Downs in the Holler) water continues to drain out through the permeable soil. As water levels drop the ice eventually collapses under its own weight, sometimes cracking like a rifle shot, other times slumping with a whump.

Pond ice collapses as water levels drop

But of course, this being Cape Breton, sooner or later everything changes. It rains buckets. Or we get a warm spell and a big snowmelt. Or both. Rain water and snowmelt from the highlands pour into the pond, raising the water level. Some ice may be frozen to the ground, but most of the ice surface will be lifted by the rising water. This is one of the miracles of water – most matter is denser in solid form, but ice is less dense than liquid water and thus floats, enabling aquatic life to survive winter’s deep freeze.

So the ice rises along with the rising water, but the ice surface is now smaller than the expanding pond perimeter. Water flows around the edge of the ice, over grounded ice, and collects in low-lying melt-water pools. And it is in these places where water and light do their magic dance.

Over the years I have enjoyed a gorgeous array of colours. The three photos below are all of the same place, just below the yurt where I lived for eight years.

A pool like an
a spiral
shining with the
nacre sheen of

Oh wait!
Now that same
pool is an aquamarine gemstone!

And now, transformed yet again, it’s like an amulet for a giant,
carved from jade.

So if water is true blue, why does it display such a kaleidoscope of colours?

This is a multi-coloured question with a multi-faceted answer. I’m no expert on optics – you could even say I’m walking on thin ice – but here is my best shot. (As always, I welcome your comments and corrections.) Water can take on a variety of colours due to light being reflected, filtered, or scattered; by suspended particles like silt or clay; by dissolved substances like iron or copper; or by microorganisms like bacteria or algae. Or, just to keep things interesting, by some combination of the above.

Take mountain lakes, like Moraine Lake in Alberta, featured on older $20 bills. These lakes are famously turquoise from ‘glacial flour’, finely-ground rock particles suspended in the water column. The rock particles scatter light in the blue-green part of the spectrum, and some is scattered back to the surface to our appreciative eyes. So, suspended particles + light scattering = turquoise lake photo op.

Rivers can be muddy brown or reddish from suspended silt or clay (like ‘The Big Muddy’ Missouri River). If the silt or clay settles out, the water will become clear. Conversely, substances that dissolve in water give it intrinsic colour. Think of rushing rivers in spring, tawny with the dissolved tannins released by decaying organic matter. Water with high iron content may look pale yellow or rust-coloured. Dissolved copper from corroding pipes will give water a blue/green tinge.

Reflections on a Pond

When light shines on still water, some rays penetrate the water and are refracted (bent) while others are reflected back off the surface. Depending on your viewing angle, the water may act like a mirror, echoing the world above its surface. In winter these watery pond mirrors are neatly framed by ice and snow.

You could say this pool of water is sky blue.
And you could say this water is ‘cloudy’.
And you could say … Wait. Spruce trees are green but not that green – and a green sky?

Why is the Water Green?

I posted the photos below on Facebook and they sparked a question: ‘Why is the water so green?’ I’d always attributed the pond’s wintry colours to light reflecting and refracting and scattering, but that question got me thinking more ‘deeply’ about that vivid green.

L’il Pond is a lively place all summer, teeming with aquatic plants, including its namesake lilies, that die off each fall. Eutrophic bodies of water like the pond are rich in nutrients, like nitrogen and phosphorous, that allow phytoplankton to thrive. Apparently some of these single-celled algae can survive all winter, feeding from that rich nutrient bath and giving off oxygen that benefits the aquatic organisms beneath the ice. These suspended microscopic algae contain chlorophyll that can give water a green colour. Decaying organic matter consumes oxygen and releases dissolved tannins that dye the water a tawny gold or sepia brown.

Like an artist mixing paint on a palette, winter blends these watercolours to achieve a rich array of hues, from earthy ochres and warm olive greens, to gem-like emeralds, peridots, and the many shades of jade.

Why is the Water Green and Blue?

I’ve ‘reflected’ on this and here’s my best guess. The green water at the top is last year’s pond water that escaped to the surface as the ice contracted. It has that rich olive-green colour from suspended and dissolved organic matter as described above. The water on the bottom is fresh from the highlands and relatively pure. It has a crisp minty-blue colour from reflected and scattered light. As the fresh water mixes with the older pond water, winter will blend yet more watercolours to enrich its paintings on the snow-white canvas.

The Colours of Ice

When water retains its colour after freezing, the colour must be due to dissolved or suspended matter that remains captured in the ice lattice. This gorgeous green ice supports the idea that those watery greens were not just a trick of the light.

Delving Deeper into the Blues

I’ve been lucky enough to see glaciers out west and icebergs off the east coast. Both glaciers and icebergs can display striking blues within the white. As with liquid water, both ice and snow filter white sunlight. The surface reflects almost all the light and is a blinding white, but as the light penetrates deeper, the long-wavelength reds are absorbed and the blue and blue-green wavelengths are scattered, some finding their way back to our eyes.

There haven’t been any glaciers in Cape Breton for about 10,000 years, and although we do get smaller ice floes, you have to hop on the ferry to Newfoundland to see the really big bergs. But dig a hole in a snowbank, or look into a crack in the ice, and you might detect a hint of blue.

It was more obvious to the eye, but can you see a hint of blue in this mini-crevasse on the pond?
Leaf: ‘Help! I’ve fallen into a crevasse and I can’t get out!’

Like liquid water, ice can also reflect light for subtle displays of colour, as seen here.

The Colours of Snow – the Shadow Knows (but I don’t)

Next time you’re looking at snow, take a gander at the colour of the shadows. When the sun is low in the morning sky, shadows on snow are a beautiful blue. When the sun is high overhead, they tend to fade to grey, but as the sun drops to the western horizon, the shadows stretch out and shift back to blue.

The length of these tree shadows is an indication of how low the morning sun is.
Later in the afternoon, these beautiful draped shadows are almost as blue as the sky.

Shadows occur when light is blocked – a shadow is the absence of light. When the sun is high a shadow is the absence of white light. That should make shadows black, but often there is enough reflected light bouncing into the shadow zone that they tend to shades of grey. As I described earlier, there are more long-wavelength reds and oranges when the sun is lower in the sky. When this light is blocked, the absence of red and orange light results in a blue shadow, visible on the snow-white backdrop. I think. Maybe.

But it’s more complicated than that. I’ve seen both blue and grey shadows at different times of day. What’s going on? There are a handful of differing opinions on the cause of blue shadows on the web, but which, if any, is correct? I have my own ideas, but I’m not sure if they’re correct either. This is the kind of conundrum my science-geek buddies and I use to discuss over pints at the pub. So if any of you want to join me in puzzling over snow shadows, I’ll buy the beer.

Okay, ‘nuf of dem blues – it’s time to get in the pink. There is a lovely phenomenon known as ‘alpenglow’ when snowy mountain peaks glow rosy pink at sunrise or sunset. But pink snow can be more than just a transient reflection. Algae can lend their colour to snow as well as to water, as shown in the photo below from Dogs and Drift Ice.

Feeling in the pink with watermelon snow.

Our drift ice often displays this red-pink tinge. I’d always heard the colour came from the red soils of PEI hitching a ride, but then why is the red on top of the floe? While writing that blog I learned that pink snow is caused by Chlamydomonas nivalis, a unicellular green alga that contains a red carotenoid pigment called astaxanthin. That’s a mouthful, but it goes by the wonderful moniker ‘watermelon snow’ and can also be seen in the mountains.

And just a final word of caution about the colour of snow: If it’s yellow? Don’t eat it!

Coyote calling card.

More Colourful Signs of Life

Winter snows cover grass, shrubs, mosses and such with a soft white blanket. Amphibians burrow into mud. Critters go underground or even hibernate. Many of our colourful birds fly south. All those formerly brilliant leafy trees are now bared to their buff. But life goes on in winter and sometimes brings a bit colour into our lives.

Leafy trees are winter bare but here in the mixed forest there is still greenery. Conifers may lack the pizzazz of deciduous trees most of the year, but they are indeed ‘evergreen’ and wear their subdued colours all year round. Many of our aging white spruce are draped with ‘old man’s beard’, a sage-green lichen (genus Usnea). Last year’s bird’s nest is suspended high above the snow and made mostly from this lichen. This year we’ve had barely any snow, so green things normally hidden are making a rare winter appearance.

And, of course, there are still animals out and about. While many birds head south, blue jays stay and brighten our day. Most mammals wear coats of grey or brown, but there are a few more colourful characters in the neighbourhood.

Not a fox! Our red dog Tundra also stood out as she walked across the frozen pond back in 2006.

Sunrise, Sunset

It seems fitting to end this post with sunset and its spectacular colours. Back in Calgary I used to ride my bicycle to work along the Bow River bike path. I loved those mornings when the river glowed red and rose just before sunrise. Here in the Holler I marvel at the sunset colours captured by the pond and framed by white snow and ice. I’ll leave you with these final reflections on the Colours of Winter.

Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Sue McKay Miller
March 16, 2023

p.s. Phew! Just under the wire to get this winter blog posted before we swing into spring.

Have a Happy Spring Equinox!

Stones I have Known

In my former life I was a geophysicist. We use a variety of remote-sensing techniques to image the deep subsurface and work closely with geologists. One Friday afternoon some 20 years ago I was in a Calgary pub and told one of these rockhounds that I was driving across the country to Cape Breton. ‘Ah,’ he said, and a dreamy look came into his eyes. ‘The pink granite…’ He had done a geological survey in the Cape Breton Highlands and kindly gave me a copy of his report. I looked forward to laying my own eyes on this remarkable pink granite – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The best place to see pink granite is at Green Cove in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. You can walk out onto this granitic headland that juts into the brilliant blue Atlantic. Waves crash against rocks that are 373 million years old. It’s enough to make a geologist swoon, but pink granite is so abundant around here that some locals just don’t get how anyone can get so excited about ‘a bunch of rocks’. But if you do get excited about rocks, you will surely love Cape Breton, because we have lots of great rocks!

It is beyond the scope of this blog – or my expertise – to discuss the complex geology of Cape Breton. But thanks to its convoluted tectonic history, this island boasts all three major rock types – sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic – in abundance. There are glacial erratics throughout the Acadian forest and cobble beaches lining the shores. You can see outcrops of granite and basalt, a marble mountain, and gypsum deposits sculpted by the sea. But as usual with this blog, I’m staying close to home. So take a walk with me and I’ll introduce you to some stones I have known. Remember to click on a photo to see it full size.

Sitting on a rock in a river – tickled pink to be surrounded by pink granite!

Walking along any of the many local rivers and brooks is a great way to see stones. Running water dances with rock as it rushes from the Highlands to the sea in cascading waterfalls, riffles and pools. Powerful water shapes boulders and flows among stepping stones.

Humble Rock wallows in this meander like a stony hippopotamus. A special spot to reflect on life or, as The Beatles suggested, ‘Turn off your mind, relax and float down stream’.

There’s Hard Rock … and then there’s Soft Rock

Granite is igneous, forged in fiery magma. It is hard and durable and, like marble (metamorphosed limestone) is used for buildings, countertops, floors and such. At the other end of the spectrum is gypsum, a sedimentary rock so soft you can carve it with a pocketknife. But be careful, your artwork might dissolve if it gets damp! Gypsum is also called plaster rock, and, as these names suggest, is a component in gyprock (aka drywall) and plaster. Gypsum is moderately soluble and when it dissolves it leaves slumps and sinkholes behind. Our local ‘Plaster Park’ was closed due to safety concerns over the sinking land.

Gaping sinkholes formed as (I presume) the underlying gypsum dissolved.

Things I like to do with Rocks

Sit on them

There are so many rocks around here that you can always find one that is just right to sit on and watch the river flow. Or watch the tide roll in and then watch it roll back out again. My daughter-in-law and I demonstrate.

Hug them!

I’m definitely a tree hugger, but when I emerge soaking wet from the Atlantic, I just love hugging a hot rock that has been soaking up the sun’s rays. The breakwater stone pictured below is my favourite hugging rock – it is just the right size and at the perfect angle of repose. My beach buddies have seen me draped over it many a time.

Pile them up or throw them down …

Or balance them all around!

Beach rocks are often featured in spontaneous beach art. To see everything from balanced stones to mysterious rock patterns, check out my blog At the End of the Day from September 2021. And, for the record, I didn’t do this balancing act. A young fellow named Jordan did.

Gauge the sand thickness

Beach sand washes in and out, dependent on tides, winds, waves, and storms. But boulders abide. These lovely sea-sculpted stones appear and disappear depending on the thickness of the sand. When they vanish entirely? There’s a lot of sand onshore!

Use them as landmarks

Inuit make inukshuks to guide them across the vast expanse of the arctic, but naturally-occurring rocks can be useful waymarkers too. Erratics are boulders that were transported by glaciers and then unceremoniously dumped as the glaciers retreated. These stones are randomly strewn throughout the forest. As I described in The Humbled Hiker, I like to bushwhack around on the highland slopes. There are no trails up there so erratics serve as useful landmarks, or touchstones. And I do touch them. In fact, I was so happy to see this familiar boulder on a recent exploration that I gave it a big hug.

The glaciers left behind large boulders, but they also dumped glacial till – an unsorted mix of sand, silt, pebbles and cobbles – across the landscape. Till is easily eroded along shorelines, as shown below. As the cliff retreats the cobbles and pebbles pile up below. Lighter sands and silts may be picked up by the waves to form beaches or be carried offshore.

Tundra stands on an eroding cliff of glacial till – an unsorted mix of sand, silt, pebbles and cobbles.

Write a story about them

Glacial till is not very fertile. I doubt the Scots who settled this area had any love for the stones they had to pick from the ground to prepare the land for farming. The evidence of their backbreaking labour is all through the forest that has since swallowed up the old farms. Rock piles, rock walls, and even old rock-lined root cellars are scattered throughout. I was wandering in the woods one evening and stumbled across a huge rock pile I’d never seen before. It inspired my short story ‘The Stone Mound’, published in ‘Magine magazine, March 2022.

This huge stone mound inspired a short story of the same name.

Collect them

I liked rocks long before I became a geoscientist. I was traveling overseas when a taxi driver went to take my suitcase. I weighed all of 110 lbs and he expected to take it from me and easily toss it into the trunk. The weight of it so took him by surprise that he nearly dropped it. His look said, ‘What’ve you got in there? Rocks?’ Well, actually … yes.

And now I that I live a mile or so from a cobble beach I keep bringing stones home. They sit around in piles all over the place. I’m not alone. Many a beach goer leaves with rocks in their pockets. That special stone that spoke to them. It said, ‘Take me home with you.’

Which one would you pick?

Make Rock Art

Stones are naturally beautiful, but they also make a great medium for artwork. I sometimes paint on rocks, make stone mosaics, or create sand-on-sandstone pieces. Collecting and selecting is part of the fun! Here are a few samples of my rock art.

Are Rocks Alive?

Not technically – at least not in the way western science defines life. But rocks beget dirt and dirt combines with organic matter to form soil and soil begets life. It always amazes me to see lichens, fungi and mosses transforming a lithified collection of minerals into a living organism.

This big boulder is a nursery for the moss and lichens shown below.

It’s Alive!

This glacial erratic sports a mossy cape and a fern headdress.
Yes, dear reader, there is a boulder somewhere under there.

Judging by all the moss they’ve gathered, I’d say these are NOT Rolling Stones.

(They rock, but they don’t roll!)

Sacred Stones

Alive or not, rocks have their own special energy and power. People have always known this, and ancient standing stones and mounds are a testament to that connection. Rocks are ancient compared to we short-lived humans, but even they have their cycles, cycles that stretch over eons too vast to imagine. Mountains slowly erode, carried bit by bit to the ocean, only to be reborn. Perhaps at the bottom of oceans as heat and pressure turn sediments into stone; stones that rise again, thrust into mountains by massive tectonic forces. Or perhaps subducted into the fiery cauldron of Earth’s mantle and then shooting out of the depths in a volcanic eruption. Birthed in fire or water, rocks hold this elemental energy within, and we humans somehow sense that.

Like so many, I am drawn to the ancient standing stones and neolithic mounds I have visited in Scotland and Ireland. But stones can mark a sacred spot in a much more humble manner. We can pile stones over bones to create a burial cairn. We did this when our aged cats died within months of each other, a pair of cat-cairns way up a creek in the BC interior.

I built another cairn years later when our dog Tundra died, 15 years ago now. I can see her rock cairn from my window as I type this. I often visit this special spot and from time to time I add a new beach stone, carefully selected and placed. Rest in peace, Tundra.

Sue McKay Miller
December 9th, 2022

‘Everybody must get stoned.’ – Bob Dylan

Swimming with Frogs

I wasn’t going to do it again. Really. Surely two frog blogs is enough. But you know what they say: ‘Write what you know.’ Do I know frogs? Well, not in the sense that a herpetologist does – I’m no expert – but I have learned a thing or two just by being around them for the past 18 years. It’s a kind of knowledge by osmosis, that passive process of absorption from the environment. Akin to the way frogs absorb water through their skin rather than drinking it down.

But I never much liked that ‘write what you know’ advice anyhow. After all, if every author complied, there would be no science fiction or historical fiction or fantasy. I prefer ‘Write what fascinates you.’ Of course, sometimes ‘what you know’ is also what fascinates you. And I do find frogs fascinating. So here I go again with yet another frog blog.

‘She finds me fascinating. How thrilling.’

Actually, I’m amazed by all amphibians. Of all the vertebrate classes, only amphibians undergo such radical transformation during their life cycle. Baby mammals look similar to adults only smaller and way cuter. Baby birds look like adults only smaller and, in some cases, way uglier – until they get all downy and adorable. Baby fish and baby reptiles emerge from their eggs looking like miniature versions of their parents.

But members of the class Amphibia have a more complex journey to maturity; more akin to some insects, like butterflies or dragonflies. They don’t just get bigger, they are utterly transformed in appearance, habitat and lifestyle.

Living with frogs has given me the opportunity to observe this fascinating journey at various ages and stages. The cycle begins soon after spring melt, as described in Funky Frogs, and carries on with matching and hatching, as I posted in Frogs, Globs, and Pollywogs. The female lays jellied egg masses attached to twigs underwater. That’s it for maternal care from mama. She just lays lots of eggs and lets nature – natural selection that is – take its course. As pond levels drop, these egg blobs can be stranded high and dry, like the one I’m holding. By this time I can see the embryos wiggling around in their egg sacs and feeding on the algae that colours the eggs green. I put stranded blobs back in the water to give the wee ones a shot at survival.

The eggs hatch, releasing the little wigglers into the water. At this larval stage the pollywogs, or tadpoles, seem more like fish than frogs. They live and breathe underwater and suffocate without it. They swim like fish, look like fish, live like fish. But unlike the proverbial duck, they aren’t fish. Because they aren’t done yet.

Next comes the magic – metamorphosis! And this is why I am amazed by amphibians, fascinated by frogs. The tadpole sprouts tiny, skinny hind legs. They are useless, dangly things at first. The pollywog keeps on swimming like a fish, swishing its long tail and breathing through its gills. Then forelegs sprout, mere nubs. But the legs keep growing, becoming stronger and thicker.

‘What the heck are these things anyhow?’ (Yes, I had pet tadpoles at one point.)

And then one day the tadpole uses those legs to venture up into the world of air. I can’t help seeing this moment as a tiny reenactment of those very first animals who emerged from the ocean onto land. What a transformation! The pollywog is now a froglet. It is no longer a fishy thing but looks like a tiny frog with a tail. That tail will be absorbed as nutrient by the froglet and will be the only food it consumes during this transitional phase. The gills will also be absorbed and the frog will breathe through its skin while underwater, or its mouth or lungs on land. This aquatic animal has become a creature of two elements: water and air. It is truly amphibious. And that is the miracle of metamorphosis.

Other Things that Change

And now I turn to a different transformation. I left the Highland Holler at the end of May to spend some time with my family on Vancouver Island. When I left, the pond was already low and gungy with detritus. The shallowest pools had separated from the main pond, as I described in Frogs, Globs, and Pollywogs in June 2021. There weren’t ‘gobs and gobs of jellied egg blobs’ yet, but a fresh crop of amphibians had begun their perilous journey in freshly-laid eggs.

I returned home three weeks later to a world transformed. The barren brown of spring had exploded into the verdant green of summer. Trees had leafed, shoots had shot up, and the shrubs and wildflowers (aka weeds) were threatening to engulf the cabin. I’d anticipated a change, but the extent of the growth in such a short time was startling.

But something unexpected and delightful also happened while I was away: L’il Pond was full again, totally rejuvenated by the June rains that fueled all that plant growth. All the pools had filled and joined to form one large pond. The egg blobs were gone, hatched into tiny tadpoles, hidden amidst the bright green aquatic plants. The water was crystal clear, fresh from the Highland lakes.

All this meant it was time again – time to swim with the frogs! I don’t get this opportunity every year. Often the pond is too shallow and gungy by the time summer rolls around. I was lucky last summer, as described in Ups and Downs in the Holler, and now I was getting another chance.

I hauled my pond gear through the brush and out to the gravel point, which was mostly submerged. I set down my chair and beach bag and was gazing around, trying to decide where to get in, when – Eek! There he was! He was big. He was green. He was a Green Frog. And he was just. Right. There.

If I want to swim, I have to share the pond with this fellah. He’s as big as my hand.

Green frogs are the biggest frogs we have here in Cape Breton. (We don’t, so far as I can determine, have bull frogs on the island.) I wrote about them and other frog species last June, but here’s the recap. The tadpoles take two years to mature and by their second year are bigger than some frog species will ever be. The tads are bizarre looking creatures. To quote myself, they ‘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.’

Given the size of the tadpoles, it’s no surprise that these frogs are the jolly green giants of the pond. And their mating call is as loud as they are big – a percussive ‘Gurnk!’ that echoes around the Holler. Get a bunch of them going at it and they keep me awake at night. Noisy party-animal neighbours! They are also the last to leave the party, still gurnking away long after all the other male frogs have given up on getting lucky.

Absurdly, I felt a bit intimidated about going swimming alongside this guy. It’s not like frogs prey on people, like some Creature from the Black Lagoon. But … he’s just so … there. There are all kinds of critters in L’il Pond: Snakes and newts and a myriad of insects at various stages of their complex life cycles. Swimming in the Holler is not for the squeamish. And I’m kind of squeamish. But it just seems silly not to go swimming in my own pond. So, with some hesitation and dithering, I finally waded in, launched myself forward and dove under. It was refreshing and absolutely lovely – and not a single sneak attack by a rogue frog.

What creatures lurk beneath that calm surface?

Then I sat down to dry off, relax, and enjoy the view. The pond level was so high that I set my chair in the shallows. I glanced down and there, right beside me, the miracle of metamorphosis was underway. This froglet seemed unaware of me, perhaps too perplexed by the strange turn his life had taken to care about the giant looming nearby. We hung out together for quite a while, pondering the mysteries of transformation.

Now it is August and the pond has once again drained to levels too shallow for homo sapiens swimmers. It’s only fit for frogs and bugs and snakes and newts and for the ducks, sandpipers, kingfishers and such that feed on them. The frogs are content, with a surface cover of lily pads to keep them shaded and hidden from predators, and lots of lovely silty detritus on the bottom.

Happy as a frog in muck.

So I will leave the pond to the local critters now – they need no longer fear a gigantic primate invading their watery habitat. Unless, of course, a post-tropical storm brings buckets of rain to the Holler and refills L’il Pond with clean Highland water. Then I will once again be swimming with the frogs. You can count on it.

Sue McKay Miller
August 10th, 2022

p.s. Uh oh! Look who just landed!

A great blue heron arrived today and is stalking the shallows – watch out Froggie!

Need more frog blogs? Check out:
Funky Frogs and Frogs, Globs, and Pollywogs from May and June of 2021. These cover more frogs species – including spring peepers, wood frogs, pickerels, and leopard frogs – that live in the Holler alongside the green frogs. As always, click on any photo to see it full-size, and please feel free to comment below with observations or corrections.

Dogs and Drift Ice

Twenty years ago my dog Tundra and I spent the winter on the northern tip of Cape Breton Island, house and dog-sitting. The owner of the handbuilt house and of Max the dog warned me that the roaring and pounding of the nearby ocean would start to drive me crazy after a while. Then one morning I’d wake up to … silence. That silence meant the drift ice was in.

It happened exactly as he said. I started by loving the sound of the ocean but eventually I wondered ‘Will it ever stop?’ Then one February morning I woke up and … dead silence. The dogs and I walked onto the beach and gazed across a vast expanse of ice where wild waves had been just the day before.

Tundra contemplates drift ice for the first time in her life: ‘Where did all the water go?’
Max is a local and has seen it all before. That’s Cape North in the distance.

The pooches and I spent many hours on that shore. The ice, formed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, breaks apart and drifts, blown about by the wind. Some days it crowded up against the shore, other days the wind blew it offshore until it was just a brilliant white line on the horizon. At times it was so tightly packed you could walk on it, but often it was broken into pans, or clampers, that shifted and jostled with the ocean’s motion. Clamper jumping is a sport of sorts, but only for The Young and the Reckless ;-)

One thing these photos don’t capture is the sounds the shifting ice makes. More that once I was spooked by the ghostly moans and shrieks from grinding ice. It put me in mind of those explorers, like Franklin and Shackleton, whose ships became trapped in the ice. The sounds (which included their ships being crushed) must have been hair-raising.

I’ve never been to the Arctic (see ‘bucket list’) but that winter, when I turned my back to the forested highlands and stared across the ice extending all the way to the horizon, I imagined myself there, alone in the arctic. I had a profound sense of my smallness and insignificance in the face of that vast white expanse. Of course, unlike those unlucky explorers, I could turn my back on the ice and head up to the house to warm up by the wood stove.

all alone

Unlike the Arctic Ocean, the open Atlantic rarely freezes. Salt water has a (slightly) lower freezing point than fresh and the constant mixing motion of waves, tides and currents inhibits freezing. Harbours and bays are more protected and they do freeze over. Seasonal ice also forms in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Strait of Belle Isle (between Labrador and Newfoundland). When the ice breaks up it finds its way to Cape Breton’s shores, usually arriving in northern Cape Breton in February and staying until April or May. Ice passes into the Cabot Strait between Cape Breton and Newfoundland, arriving here on the North Shore around March. That is, if it comes at all. With milder winters and warming oceans, there are years when there is little to no sea ice in the Gulf.

(Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, the North Shore is on the east side of the western peninsula of Cape Breton, just south of the area called ‘Down North’. Got it?)

This beauty, pretty in pink, is stranded on a bed of seaweed. Its drifting days are done.
Oh no! I’m falling apart!

I’d heard that the pinkish-red tinge often seen on the snowy ice is a souvenir from Prince Edward Island’s red sandy beaches. But it turns out to be Chlamydomonas nivalis, a unicellular green alga that contains a red carotenoid pigment called astaxanthin. Or, if you prefer, you can skip all the jargon and just go with the delightful name ‘watermelon snow’.

‘The Ice is in!’

The arrival of the ice is something of an event here (we lead quiet lives). Word gets out. There are photos posted on social media and comments about the sudden silence. But drift ice is more than just cool to look at (ha ha). Sea ice forms a protective barrier against winter’s heavy storm surf and reduces beach and cliff erosion. Loss of seasonal ice due to climate change removes that barrier and accelerates coastal erosion.

Where does the beach end and ocean begin? The ice protects the cliffs from winter storm surges.

The ice is also a convenient means of travel for all kinds of animals, including the human kind. It has become more treacherous for people and their heavy vehicles to traverse as our winters warm, but many animals still travel on the ice. I saw coyotes out on the northern drift ice a few times. It’s a convenient shortcut and easier going than deep snow. When coyotes migrated from the mainland to Cape Breton they didn’t need the causeway – they just sauntered across the ice. Drift ice is also a hunting ground for coyotes on the lookout for a seal meal.

No, that’s not a coyote in the shadows on the lower left, just a Tundra, cruising easily on the drift ice. Max, with built-in crampons, had no trouble scrambling around the icy boulders.
Tundra demonstrating how coyotes travel on ice.

Ice is the nursery where seals pup and nurse their young. Years with low or no ice can force seals to give birth on the shore, with greater exposure to predators. Or, as in the picture below, thin ice platforms might fragment before the pups are old enough to survive in the water.

A whitecoat all alone on a small floe in March 2011. I sure hoped mum was nearby.
Female grey seal on the North Shore, March 2006.
Note how the ice is protecting the beach from the heavy winter surf.

Drift Ice Gallery

What I love most about the ice is the astonishing array of shapes and forms it takes. Last December I posted Winter’s Art Gallery, a photo essay of winter’s beautiful creations of ice and snow. I omitted drift ice from that gallery since it deserves a page all its own. Now, combing through dozens of photos taken over the years, I’m finding it hard to choose. But here are the finalists. Click to see full-size versions of these any of the photos on this page.

The Beauties …

And the winner is …
Upside down mushroom cloud
Right side up pink mushroom on a bed of seaweed
Mushrooms galore!
View north to Cape Smokey with mini icebergs, called bergy bits or growlers.
One more for the ‘dogs and drift ice’ department: Neighbour dog Mya with more growlers in 2008.

… and the Beasts

In March 2012 an ice wall formed along this beach. Waves jumbled and tumbled ice chunks and also froze in place to form these strange shapes. Do you see sea monsters too? Or is it just me …

Enter the monster gallery if ye dare …
Winged sea monster rising from the deeps.
Meeting of the Monsters. Big Mouth on the left and Sea Sasquatch standing waist deep on the right.
Creepy Face!
Ice raft of the doomed.
Ice bears awaken and look out to sea.

And then we go from the sublime …

Canada geese drift past drift ice

… to the ridiculous

The flying saucer has landed
The alien emerges on its floating watercraft and waves hello

The drift ice has already come and gone along the North Shore but I spoke with my faithful correspondent and there is still ice down north. So who knows? Perhaps the ice will drift over for one more visit before it goes into a final meltdown. But by July it will be us, not ice, floating about on the ocean.

Not quite lobster season yet but coming soon to a wharf near you!

One final note: I’m a transplanted Albertan and my knowledge of the sea, sea ice and sea-ice terminology is limited. If I’ve made any mistakes or if you have any observations to add, please feel free to let me know in the comments below. I’m always keen to learn.

Sue McKay Miller
April 6, 2022

In memory of Tundra, my faithful traveling companion on the road and in life (1991-2007)

Meet the Mystery Mammal

Last October I introduced you to a few of My Wild Neighbours. This month I want to focus on a newcomer to the neighbourhood, first encountered in April 2020. The tale begins with a tail: a long, round tail attached to a long-bodied, short-legged critter diving over a roadside snowbank. I only saw the backside of the furry animal, but the size and shape and that long round tail suggested an otter from the nearby river.

A few days later I was snowshoeing through old spruce forest and saw some unusual tracks. In The Secret Lives of Animals I wrote about my favourite winter activity: following animal tracks on snowshoe. Tracks tell me who is out and about and where they go on this land we share. I’d been following tracks for some 15 years at that point, so I was familiar with the usual suspects. And these weren’t any of those.

Hmm … Who have we here?

I recalled the otter-like animal I’d diving over the snowbank. Otters are water weasels. When they visit, they slide along on their bellies, leaving distinctive grooves, and head straight for the pond, dipping under the ice into the frigid water. These strange tracks were in a dense stand of trees up beyond the pond. And not a belly-slide in sight. I began to wonder if there was a new kid on the block.

Otters like water!

I soon found out. I was lingering over coffee on a sunny Easter morning and looked out the window. An animal was loping along on the far side of the frozen pond, very dark against the brilliant white snow. I grabbed my binoculars and got a good look. My suspicions were correct: It was a fisher! He – or she – did a circuit all the way around the pond before heading up into the woods.

Now this was exciting! I’d seen a wide variety of mammals in the Holler over the years, but this was the first time I’d seen a fisher. What a thrill, after so many years, to see a critter for the first time! Later that afternoon I was bundled up, sitting outside. I heard the strangest sounds coming from the woods on the far side of the pond. My go-to animals when I hear weird noises are crows – they have an astonishing repertoire of vocalizations – but this didn’t quite fit the usual cacophony of a crow mob.

Mystery solved a moment later. A fisher came barrelling out of the woods onto the ice with a second fisher hot on its heels and making those bizarre growly sounds. Growly chased the other fisher across the pond and up into the woods. A minute later he came back down, loped back across the pond and headed back up into the forest. A very exciting Easter Sunday here in the boonies!

(Above photos taken in 2021)

Fishers are members of the weasel family (Mustelidae) which includes otters, minks, martens, and ermines, plus off-island species such as skunks, badgers, wolverines and other weasels. The name fisher is misleading. Unlike their water-weasel cousins, otters and minks, fishers rarely fish. These carnivores feed mainly on hares, rodents, grouse, and, alas, the occasional small pet. We don’t have porcupines on Cape Breton Island, but mainland fishers hunt these prickly prey. Fishers prefer mature forest habitat and are remarkably adept tree climbers. Like all members of the weasel family, fishers are fierce and punch well above their weight.

Don’t mess with this character!

Those first sightings were in April, 2020. Fast forward to winter 2021 and once again I strapped on the snowshoes and began checking out local animal tracks. In February I posted a photo of some mystery tracks in The Secret Lives of Animals. The snow was too soft to form a clear impression, but I found other mystery tracks soon after, possibly from the same creature. After that I started seeing these new tracks all over the place – near the house and through the woods and all over the pond. As you can imagine, I had my suspicions as to the likely culprit.

And what about these? Tracks can look very different, depending on snow conditions and gait. When the hind foot steps onto the forefoot track, it can alter the shape. Very confusing.
Running track typical of weasel family; hind feet register in the front tracks. (Ruler is 46 cm/18″)

A track is evidence but a sighting is proof. One day I looked out and there he was, poking around in the snow beside the house. My compost pile is under there so he may have been rooting for root veggies. On the other hand, the local squirrels have a network of snow tunnels there too, so he may have been hunting something more appetizing than rotten banana peels.

Like coyotes and other carnivores, fishers patrol large territories. Based on all those tracks I’d been seeing, it looked like my home was smackdab in the middle of this fiesty fellah’s new territory. (After seeing Growly in action, I’m going with ‘he’.)

My new neighbour had no qualms about inviting himself right up onto my deck. I think these predators, like Ollie the barred owl (Hoots in the Holler) and the great horned owl (My Wild Neighbours) like my deck for the same reason humans like hunting blinds in trees – all the better for spotting prey. Plus fisher’s nose may have led him up onto the deck after squirrel’s scent, since squirrel seems to think I built the deck purely for his pleasure. One thing for sure, fisher is just as able to climb posts and trees as his wily prey. Watch out squirrel!

Fishers, known locally as fisher cats, are not unknown in this area. Some of my neighbours (the human ones I mean ;-) have seen them now and then, but they aren’t common. It does seem that there have been more frequent sightings of fishers around the island lately, so perhaps they are making a comeback. (Fishers virtually disappeared from Nova Scotia about 100 years ago due to trapping and habitat loss but were reintroduced to the eastern mainland in the 1960’s.) Or, as someone suggested, maybe we are seeing more fishers around because ongoing clearcutting is forcing them to find new territories. The current population and status of this animal seems to be yet one more mystery.

So now here we are in 2022 and it’s snowshoe time again. I haven’t seen a fisher-in-the-fur lately, but I have been seeing tracks in the woods and on the frozen pond as fisher prowls his territory. He’s not a mystery mammal anymore, or even the new kid on the block. He’s just another one of my wild neighbours, hanging out here in the Holler.

Sue McKay Miller
January 31st, 2022

p.s. Please share your own fisher sightings and observations in the comments. As always, I welcome any corrections or additional information – I’m still learning!

Just moseying across 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: