Thursday, February 25, 2016

When someone yells 'Duck!' at Oak Hammock, you don't hunker down

Canoes at Oak Hammock, waiting to be paddled.
Several years ago,  I drove across Canada from B.C., with the Divine Ms. K, literally “passing through” Manitoba on our way to Ontario. We only stopped overnight outside Winnipeg because a torrential downpour made it unsafe to drive.
The next day we were up early and gone quickly, rushing to get to Algonquin Park and experience nature during a four-day canoe trip.

While we did enjoy some wonderful encounters there, we had no idea we had been so close to another natural gem: Oak Hammock Marsh.

Having paddled in Algonquin several times, as well as several B.C. locales - including the Queen Charlotte Islands and the world-renowned Bowron Lakes - I’ve had plenty of memorable experiences in nature, seeing songbirds, raptors, and waterfowl in B.C.’s interior, on its islands, and up and down its coast.

Eventually, I did get a chance to visit Oak Hammock - and I was amazed at the variety and diversity of bird life there.

Of course, it helped that I was paddling; there’s no better way to see birds – especially wetland species – than from a canoe.
Coot family.
We set out early in the morning to escape the early July heat and give ourselves the best opportunity to see some of the 296 different bird species recorded here.

We were not disappointed. Just minutes into our journey, we spotted an American coot with babies. 

For the next two hours, we paddled through a couple of different wetland cells, spying gulls, terns, blackbirds, and several other species. 

But the highlight came as we paddled quietly toward a small island covered with American white pelicans.

When we came too close for their comfort, it was as if someone pressed a button - they took off en masse, a white cloud of flapping feathers rising up into the sky.

In addition to its wonderful bird-watching opportunities, the area offers something else many destinations I’ve visited do not: an incredibly entertaining and informative interpretive centre. 

With all of its hands-on, youth-friendly exhibits, a family could easily spend an entire day inside, saving the outdoor experiences for another day.

White pelicans hanging out on a small island.
The centre is not only a great spot for birding and environmental education; it acts as the hub for all Ducks Unlimited Canada operations, with its head offices located there.

Originally part of a marsh called St. Andrew’s Bog that covered roughly 47,000 hectares, the end of the 19th century saw the wetland area reduced to 60 hectares, most of it drained for agriculture.

Ducks Unlimited Canada became interested in restoring part of the wetland habitat as early as the 1930s, but it was not until 1973 that the area was designated as Oak Hammock Marsh Wildlife Management Area. In creating a wetland area of roughly 3600 hectares, DUC and Manitoba Conservation joined forces to build 22 kilometres of earth dikes to help resort the area.

Twenty years later the interpretive centre opened, a year after construction of the building that also houses the DUC national headquarters was completed.

Today, the building and the wetlands stand side-by-side, proud symbols of wetland conservation at its best.
And it’s also a great place to stop and visit – not just drive by on a trip heading east or west.

(A slightly different version of this story appeared in a 2007 issue of Conservator magazine.)

Fall migration at Oak Hammock.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Feeling medieval? Channel your inner King Arthur

Where's that wench with a refill?
The crowd roars as the horses and their riders clash together. Shards of wood fly out in all directions as the two knights’ lances splinter against each other’s shield. They come to a halt, each takes another lance, then prepares to gallop at his opponent once again.

It may sound like I'm describing a scene from The Mists of Avalon or The Black Knight, but this joust is part of the evening's entertainment at the Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament, held at Toronto's Exhibition Place. 

The package also includes a four-course meal, served on tiers of long tables set in the Grand Ceremonial Arena where seats would normally be located.

Everyone involved with staging the evening’s entertainment gets right into the spirit of the adventure. The minute we entered the hall, a greeter dressed in medieval garb handed each of us a cardboard crown to wear, featuring the colours of the knight for who we were to cheer that evening. 

All the supporters for the black knight were seated in one section, the green knight supporters in another, etc.

Once seated, we feasted on an appetizer, soup, a whole Cornish game hen, a rack of spare ribs, potato and desert, all eaten from pewter dishes - without the benefit of utensils (apparently they hadn’t invented cutlery in the Middle Ages). 

That's SIR John, to you.
 In keeping with the medieval theme and atmosphere, the young woman who dished up our meal told us, “I’m Wendy, I’ll be your serving wench for the evening.”

During our meal, skilled equestrians first treated us to a display of excellent horsemanship, featuring Andalusian stallions. 

But the real fun began when the Druid entered the arena floor to say a prayer and mark the start of the knightly competitions, culminating in the jousts.

Even during real tournaments during the middle ages, jousts were not usually contests fought to the death. And while that maxim obviously still holds true at Medieval Times, we could certainly appreciate the athletic skill these modern-day knights require to gallop their horses against each other, trying to unseat their opponent without causing real injury.
She's following in the footsteps of Anne Boleyn.

Several knights competed in semi-choreographed battles, until one champion remained standing. 

That champion then selected a Queen of Love and Beauty from the crowd to end the tournament.

Before and after the dinner tournament, we browsed the souvenir area, where we could choose from a wide selection of clothing, mugs, swords and other collectibles to help us remember the occasion. 

We also had the opportunity to be “knighted” by the king, complete with a photo. 

Some of us chose to strike a pose with another character that better suited our personalities … like the executioner, for example.

Off with their heads!

(This story appeared previously in Westjet's Airlines Magazine in 2004).

Preparing for the jousts.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

New Year's traditions vary from country to country, culture to culture

Feasting: a part of any good New Year celebration.
So we have now entered the Year of the Monkey, with the Chinese or Lunar New Year having taken place last weekend.

It's at a different time of the year from the standard North American New Year, which is set on January 1 of the Gregorian Calendar, and the traditions are also very different.

There are similarities, of course. Music, food - LOTS of food! - and dance seem to play large roles in most new year celebrations. However, while in Canada, New Year's Eve tends to involve partying and and New Year's Day a family dinner (often planned around football bowl games on TV!) Chinese New Year's celebration even in Vancouver is very much more a family event. Traditional Chinese foods and family gatherings are still a big part of the day in many Chinese families in Vancouver. Of course, there's also the big New Year's Day parade in the city's Chinatown district. I've attended that, and it's always very colourful and plenty of fun.

I'm usually at home that time of the year, so we usually mark the occasion by cooking an Asian meal of some sort, and watching a movie with some kind of Chinese/Asian theme, sometimes even a show that has the theme of whatever animal that year is (monkey, tiger, dragon, etc.)

However, I have also been fortunate enough to celebrate New Year in Thailand. There, it's called Songkran, and it takes place in the first half of April. Again, it involves feasting, music, dance, and general celebration.

One of the interesting "traditions" that has evolved there the last several years is the use of super-soaker squirt guns to soak revellers...or even those not partying.

It all started with the Buddhist practice of sprinkling a blessing of water on someone's head when they enter a home or other area that's engaged in Songkran celebration. Somewhere, one year, someone got the idea squirting people with super soaker water guns was quicker. Now during the days leading up to the celebration, you risk getting soaked by strangers wherever you venture. (If you're a traveller with expensive camera gear, you might want to leave it in your hotel room if you want to avoid getting it wet.) Harmless, but sometimes annoying.

When not eating at Songkran, I was busy watching traditional Thai dance.

While I was there, I spent some time wandering around Wat Pho, one of Bangkok's premier temples. In addition to it being famous for its reclining Buddha, this temple is also the go-to place to learn the techniques of Thai massage, and earn certification in the practice.

Within the temple grounds, there was a market with food stalls. I also spent some time in an outdoor area along the Bangkok waterfront, where there were more food stalls (well, I did say there was always plenty of food eaten at new year's celebrations), dance and other artistic and cultural displays.

That's right - more food! Thai fish balls at the temple.
That's the only time I've been out of Canada for a new year's celebration, so my experience is limited to three cultures: Canadian, Chinese (as practised in Canada), and Thai.

I have eaten some East Indian food at a Sikh temple while researching a magazine piece for food on Vaishaki or Baishaki Day, which is the East Indian New Year's Day which takes place in April. But the research was done in November for a spring publication, so that's the closest I've come to "celebrating" Vaishaki (which is also a harvest festival.)

There are many other Asian cultures in Vancouver aside from Chinese, Thai, and East Indian, including Vietnamese. The Vietnamese New Year or Tet Nguyen Dan (Tet for short) is very similar to the Chinese New Year, in that it is also a "lunar" new year.

While the food may be different, the aspect of celebrating by feasting with family is a strong thread in that country's culture - as is the case with Mongolian, Tibetan, Japanese, Korean new year's celebrations. All those cultures use the same basic lunar calendar.

Whatever culture you're in, however and whenever you like to celebrate a new year, I hope the Year of the Monkey is a good one for you.

Gung hay fat choy!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Remembering my primate encounters as the Year of the Monkey looms

A mother orangutan with baby, at Semenggoh, Borneo.
The eerie sound of a howler monkey reverberated through the South American forest as our guide shook my tent gently to awaken me - unnecessary in this instance. Although it was only 6 a.m., I'd been awake for at least 30 minutes, soaking up the sounds - the monkeys, the birds, the insects - that reminded me I was on a paddling trip in the Amazon.

That was the first time I'd ever heard a howler monkey, and once you hear it, it's a sound you never forget.

It was not the first time I'd been around primates in the wild, mind you. That came probably 10 years before, in Africa.

This weekend, in many places around Asian cities and towns, and also many places closer to home in Vancouver, the sounds heard will not be those of monkeys calling out, but rather the sounds of "Gung hay fat choy!" (and all its various spellings).

The Chinese New Year is upon us, and with it, we enter into the Year of the Monkey. I myself was born in the Year of the Monkey, and so I'm hoping that means it will be an auspicious year for me.

To mark the event, I thought it would be interesting to look back at all the times I'd experienced and encountered wild monkeys in my travels. However, I won't just restrict it to monkeys - I'll also include other primates. I've been lucky enough to see three of the four great apes in the wild: gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons. I have not seen chimpanzees in the wild, however. (Note to self: go back to Africa some day, see some chimps as well as some African grey parrots.)


I first encountered wild monkeys in Tanzania. We were on a six-week trip through Africa and as we drove down onto the plains of East Africa from the Central African highlands of Burundi, we could see groups of animals moving through the bush Savannah, alongside the road. They were troops of baboons, a fairly common sight along the plains of Africa, as we were to learn in the ensuing weeks. (A huge pain in the behind, too, around areas where people congregate. They have no fear of man, can be aggressive, and pack a nasty bite. Vehicles always have to be closed and locked tight in parking lots where they frequent, lest you come back to an interior decimated by their hunting for food or other objects that might catch their eyes.)
Maheshe climbs down.

While baboons are fairly common, a week earlier in that trip, I'd encountered something much more rare, one of those experiences that usually only comes once in a lifetime - if you're lucky. On the other side of Burundi sat Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and it was in that country's Kahuzi Biega National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, that I got up close and almost personal with a family of eastern lowland gorillas, an extremely endangered species.

After trekking through the jungle for four hours, we finally spotted the silverback (or he first spotted us, more likely) sitting on a log, checking us out. We passed muster, he wandered back to the rest of the gorillas. We watched a mother nursing a baby on the forest floor, were pelted by fruit flung by some bratty juveniles, then were treated to the sight of Maheshe climbing down from the tree in which they'd been feeding and saunter off into the jungle with his charges.

We were to encounter more monkeys in Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, as well as baboons off and on throughout our African odyssey. Our route did not take us near any wild chimps, though.


Just as endangered as the gorillas of Africa are the orangutans of Asia. They exist in the wild on only two islands, Sumatra and Borneo. I've been fortunate in that I've seen them in two different rehabilitation sanctuaries in Malaysia - Semenggoh and Sepilok - where they live in the forest, but are undergoing gradual re-acclimatization to the wild. They do come to the reserves' feeding stations twice a day, where they can acquire papayas, bananas, cabbages, and other food, then melt back into the forest to pursue the solitary lives they tend to lead.

A young proboscis monkey shows signs of a big nose.
I was even luckier that on two different evenings while participating in wildlife viewing cruises along the Kinabatangan River, I saw two solitary orangutans climbing trees, preparing "night nests" to sleep in.

Many of the creatures at the sanctuaries arrive there after becoming victims of the pet trade. But a much greater threat is posed from habitat loss as a result of the massive deforestation going on so companies can reap the rewards from the palm oil industry.

Obviously, the orangutans are not the only species of animal threatened, although they are arguably the closest to extinction in the wild. But some other iconic primates are also threatened by industrial development.

One of those is the proboscis monkey, a primate that can actually say "size matters" when it comes to the mating game. The size of the males' noses, that is. The males with the biggest, most bulbous, most prominent schnoz tends to get the pick of the ladies. We saw plenty of those monkeys along the Kinabatangan, as well as in Bako National Park, located near the Malaysian city of Kuching.

A gibbon hangs out in the trees of the rain forest.
In addition to the proboscis and other monkeys that live along the Kinabatangan, we also found several gibbons. Like the howler monkeys of the New World, these apes have a very distinctive call that echoes throughout the jungle. However, they are apes, not monkeys - even though they appear to be monkeys, the way they move through the trees - and are more closely related to orangutans and gorillas than their long-tailed cousins.

Like orangutans, gibbons also face dangers from the pet trade and deforestation.

These species are some of our closest relatives in the animal world, many of them having DNA estimated to be 97 per cent similarity to humans.

I feel very privileged to have been able to see many of them in the wild. I would be very sad if that opportunity is lost to the next generation. So in this Year of the Monkey, maybe give some thought about helping out our primate cousins and helping out in any way you can - whether it's through volunteering your time, donating money, being aware of your shopping choices, or even just passing along information about this situation on social media channels.

Here are some websites to help you get started (many of them also have social media pages on Facebook and other platforms):

Note that I haven't vetted any of these sites; they're just to help you get started.

Although the thought of losing a species of ape or monkey to extinction is extremely sad, there is still hope. And where there is hope, there can be reason to celebrate efforts to halt the path to extinction. On that note, I'll close out with a silly song featuring monkeys and an orangutan and a place I have not been to yet, India. Enjoy! And since the words are included, feel free to sing along - or even dance!)

Oh, and Happy Year of the Monkey!