Thursday, March 31, 2016

A reminder of how soul-restoring a simple walk can be

Avalon Pond, Everett Crowley Park.
So I'm sitting at home, looking out the window at the birds flitting about at the numerous feeders in 
our yard, with two of our three parrots sitting on the same time, I'm scrolling through the Facebook newsfeed on my iPhone.

I come upon a post in a group I belong to, "The Best Reasons for You to Walk in a Park," by Erin Acton. Now it turns out Wednesday was "National Take a Walk in a Park Day" (yes, there is such a day, I looked it up, there are plenty of websites dedicated to the topic.) I start reading the blog post, watching her video, and it start to resonate with me.

I'd been having a bad week, no, make that a bad week-and-a-half up to that point, one of those weeks where nothing seems to work or go one's way. It was starting to get depressing. But Erin's well-sourced suggestions about how a walk in nature, getting out in nature, can really help alleviate stress, struck a chord in me.

Not that I didn't know that already, but it's like I needed a nudge, a reminder, that taking a few hours out of the day to go for a walk, aside from the physical health benefits, offers larger benefits for the soul.

It's like I forgot what Henry David Thoreau wrote in his treatise, "Walking" on the matter:

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day, at least... sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements."
Thoreau and Emerson had it right.
Again, it's not like I was re-inventing the wheel; I just had to decided enough was enough, I needed to get out and get some fresh air, a bit of exercise (which I'd been neglecting the past several days for a variety of reasons), and commune with nature, albeit in an urban setting.

So I packed up my camera and tripod, and headed off to Everett Crowley Park, a 40-hectare park barely a five-minute drive from where I live, less than 500 metres from busy SE Marine Drive in Vancouver. I've been there before, but hadn't visited since 2008.

It has changed a little; there is an additional trail that has been cut, parallel to an existing one. One of the things I do remember is a lookout along the Vista Trail, which provides a view of the Fraser River, less than a kilometre to the south. When I was last there eight or nine years ago, that portion of the river was all trees and other greenery; it's now all buildings and development along the shoreline. A bit sad, since I don't necessarily agree that's "progress." So far, the walk wasn't really lifting my spirits as I'd hoped it might.

But, I persisted on and a few minutes later down the trail, the magic of nature started to re-emerge.

I heard a woodpecker hammering away on a tree nearby. I located it, high overhead. Then I heard a chirping in the brush near the trail, the unmistakable sound of a hummingbird. Never managed to spot it, though.

Then still higher overhead, a hawk glided by, returning in the opposite direction a few minutes later.

Further along the trail, off to the left about 30 metres away sat a hawk on a tree branch. Of course, the bird flew away before I could get set up to shoot some photos, but it was still magical.

Eventually, I made my way over to Avalon Pond at the northeast corner of the park. There were always ducks there - usually mallards - and I'd even seen a heron there, once, high up in a tree.

The mallards were there...and so were a pair of mated buffleheads.

A male bufflehead patrols the pond.

Buffleheads are really cool diving ducks. Smaller than mallards and very unique looking. Plus, it's just a cool word to say - "bufflehead."

 Try it. Say it out loud a few times. It almost sounds like the kind of insulting name Bugs Bunny would call Daffy Duck in the old Loony Tunes cartoons.

But it's not - it's the common name for Bucephala albeola. A friend of mine calls them "saddle shoe ducks," which gives you an idea of what they look like, if you didn't already know.

Anyway, I tried shooting some photos and video from a trail that ran alongside the pond, then found a spot at one end where I could sit down a log, set up my tripod in an easy-access position and took the better part of an hour watching them swim and dive back and forth among the mallards. I even got a few good shots.

The mallards always seem friendly at Avalon.

Letting go, breathing - really breathing - I could feel a sense of peace and perspective start to take root in my being. I noticed some of the songbirds flitting about in the bushes around me. I spotted several hummingbirds and out of the corner of my eye a larger bird dodging about in the hardwoods 50 yards away (maybe a pileated woodpecker?)

That two hours I spent did wonders for me - other responsibilities kept me from a four-hour sojourn as Dr. Thoreau prescribed - got me back on the rail properly, which I was in danger of falling off (and with the fall, could a potential train-wreck be far off?)

Walking back to my car, doing some shopping for groceries, talking with people I met - it all just seemed better, following my walk.

While I enjoy watching the visitors to the birdfeeders in our yard immensely, sometimes a walk rewards one with different kinds of benefits. I resolved not to let it get to this point again, to take time to re-connect with nature via a walk in the woods, not just from my living room window.

And next time, I don't think I'll wait another eight years to go back to that little park that can offer such a balm for my soul.

Trail map for Everett Crowley Park.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

New film provides a look at our birds and their journeys

What is the future for songbirds like chickadees?
I had the opportunity this past week to see an amazing new film, a documentary about birds. The film was called The Messenger.

Now the reason it was called that is mentioned in the film's beginning and reiterated once or twice as throughout the film.

It goes back to the fact that ancient peoples viewed birds as messengers - messengers from the gods, messengers from the other side, messages from the spirit world - and it is the film's premise that they are still messengers today - and the message they have for us is one about our own future.

The film delves into several issues migratory songbirds face in our modern world; one of them is the way that they can get disoriented by the light that we as humans create in our cities. It shows how, in cities like New York and Toronto, our night-time lights can really produce a negative impact on their migrations up and down the coast from north to south and back again.

Connected with that is the way thousands of birds kill themselves flying into our city's high-rise buildings. This issue resulted in the birth of the organization FLAP as a response to it.

Another issue facing songbirds is the hunting of them for food.

That's right - food.

In France, there is a huge controversy right now about how the centuries-old tradition of hunting ortolans for food. The film actually interviewed one of the hunters, as well as some folks dedicated to stopping the practice. Although it is now illegal, French authorities, by-and-large, look the other way.

The film also looked at other issues facing birds, a big one being pesticides - including the 21st century production of grains which have pesticides built right into them by seed manufacturers.

The movie also documents the way our industrial development - the need to drill for oil, most noticeably - and how it can affect the bird population in the boreal forest.

The film takes us all over the world - from the Eastern Seaboard of North America, to the jungles of Costa Rica, the fields of France, the prairies of Saskatchewan, and the boreal forests of Alberta, to name but a few destinations.

It's a journey, a trip around the world, to see what it is these birds are facing - and what they, as messengers, are trying to tell us.
Female red-winged blackbird. Will their songs be silent soon?
Birds are incredibly adaptable, probably more so than mammals. Despite that, they are suffering. We're changing the environment so fast now, faster than birds can cope with it.

And while this does not bode well for them, it also has ramifications for us.

As one of the people interviewed in the film says, "Songbirds are really like the canary in the coal mine ... they are telling us something is wrong, something is happening on the planet that is not good."

That's why organizations like FLAP and Bird Studies Canada work so hard to try to figure everything out so we can make changes - for the birds...and for our own future.

The film is directed by Su Rynard. Not a scientist, not even a birder, really, she did a masterful job in bringing this film together. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous ... breath-taking beauty radiates from the screen. Probably why it's won so many awards.

Those of us who attended the movie were fortunate enough to "meet" and chat with her via Skype on the big theatre screen. Ah, technology. (Ironically, while technology can help us enjoy these types of experiences, it can also harm, as the movie points out.)

It played very briefly last Sunday, March 20 in Vancouver, at the Rio Theatre, one show and one day only. But it will be back again in May, for a showing May 9, again, at the Rio. Their website has information about other venues hosting it, and plans are in the works to

In the meantime, enjoy some of the marvelous footage in this trailer.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

When Irish eyes are smiling...and it's not even Ireland

Does it get any more Irish than Guinness?
So, St. Patrick's Day is upon us ... and tradition holds that I should write something about Ireland in
my blog to mark the occasion.

The problem is, I haven't BEEN to Ireland. (At least not yet).

The closest I've been physically (and for that matter, spiritually) is Wales.

I have written a couple of published stories about Wales, as well as blogged about it, but we're not celebrating St. David's Day (is there such a holiday for the patron saint of Wales?), so that doesn't really count.

It's not that I don't WANT to go to Ireland...I've just always had other destinations on my radar. And it's not like there aren't things to interest me in that country. Never mind the fact it's the home of both Guinness stout and Bushmill's Irish Whisky, there are also some excellent birding and paddling opportunities there (although the chance of spotting parrots there might be slim to none...).

I always celebrate St. Pat's Day at home with some Celtic music, an Irish dish or two (this year I'm making a meatloaf baked in a Guinness glaze), and plenty of Guinness  (both in a glass and in the food), Bushmill's, Bailey's, and a movie or two with an Irish theme (The Quiet Man, The Fighting Prince of Donegal are two of my favourites) and some old episodes of Remington Steele that were set in Ireland.

 Let's do a little cooking with Guinness...

I often read stories from Ireland, from a collection called Irish Folk Tales by Henry Glassie, that I've owned for about 27 years.

I also receive regular press releases from Tourism Ireland ... in fact, the one I received Wednesday of this week was very interesting.

It was slugged, "St Patrick’s celebrations get the green light around the world - Tourism Ireland’s Global Greening goes from strength to strength with 190 major landmarks and sites taking part this year – celebrating Ireland and St Patrick."

The reason I say it's interesting for me is because, as the release states, "Some 190 iconic landmarks and sites around the world will be illuminated in green over the coming days – as part of Tourism Ireland’s 2016 Global Greening initiative to celebrate the island of Ireland and St Patrick."

It goes on to list many sites, and includes Canada: "several sites will join the Global Greening celebrations including  the 'green lantern' of the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Ontario" - which is a place I've visited.
At the Nature Museum, the reptiles chase St. Patrick...
The Calgary Tower is also involved in the occasion. When I worked as a communications consultant for the Alberta Wilderness Association in 1999 and 2000, the tower was (and still is) a big part of the AWA's schedule of annual events aimed at helping keep the province "green" with its Tower Climb held every spring.

Niagara Falls is also involved, a place I've visited many times, and written about a few times, as well.

My most recent visit to those places was to the Nature Museum. Amazing place, great for families, I could have spent an entire day there easily, rather than the few hours I had to squeeze in.

Other stops in my travelling life that are part of this initiative include Casa Loma in Toronto, Toronto's Distillery District, and in close proximity (but not an actual visit to) the Nairobi National Museum in Kenya's capital city.

So while I have not been to Ireland, I've been to many places that are helping mark St. Patrick's Day this year.

I guess in some ways, I've been there, if not physically, then certainly in spirit.

Maybe one of these days, I'll even get to go to the Emerald Isle itself.

Until then, I'll just wish you "Top of the mornin' from the bottom of me glass!"

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Tuco: it's about an African grey parrot, but also much more

Usually, I write about travel in this space, although that does encompass a broad spectrum of sub-genres.

Today, I'm reviewing a book. Tuco is not a travel book, although the author, Brian Brett, does describe some of his travels in places like British Columbia, Mexico, Thailand, and other destinations in the book.

At some point, paddling is mentioned in the book, although not in a big way.

It's also not a book about the third of the three protagonists in the Sergio Leone 1967 spaghetti western, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," played with panache by Eli Wallach. (Although as the author reveals, there is a connection with the movie.)

The book is about the author's relationship with his African grey parrot. It is an excellent read, and you don't have to have lived with a parrot to appreciate it. While Brett's relationship with his African grey is an important part of the book, it's also a springboard for much deeper conversations about the world we live in and the way we relate to it.

Subtitled, The Parrot, the Others and a Scattershot World, A Life with Birds, Brett delves into his relationship not just with Tuco, but with other birds and the world at large. The book actually is a third version of a three-set volume that is a memoir of his life and its struggles, paralleled by the struggles humankind has in the world, struggles to accept others as they are, struggles to prosper without destroying the world - a "scattershot" world as Brett views it - and how they are both reflected in this out-of-place bird's life.

I say out of place, because Brett views Tuco as an "other" of sorts. He himself was an "other," an outsider growing up, because of being born with Kallman syndrome (a condition that causes a form of androgyny) that created huge issues for him as he entered puberty and grew into young adulthood. "Othering" is what we all do to various degrees to anything we see as strange or different. It's othering that often mutates into bullying, something Brett put up with frequently while growing up in British Columbia.

We "other" birds, animals, people of different religions, races, sexual orientations - the list is almost endless.
An African grey parrot, at Bloedel Conservatory.

The theme of othering crops up many times in the narrative as Brett weaves his way through a tapestry of topics that include science, environmentalism, animal cruelty, bird-watching, travel, small-town politics, his early experiences with pet birds, and life with an African grey parrot.

It's all enjoyable to read, but as someone who has spent close to a quarter-century living with African grey parrots, those anecdotes about Tuco's antics were the most enjoyable, the parts I re-read over and over again, sometimes aloud to anyone who would listen (or anyone who would read the passages I posted on my Facebook page regularly while reading the book.) And there were so many of them that reflect and almost eerily parallel the experiences I've had with my greys. For example:
"When a joke is told in our house, Tuco is always the first to laugh, chiming in milliseconds before anyone else. Does he get the joke? Probably not. What he does is even smarter. ... For Tuco, the crucial factor in a joke is not the joke but the way it makes us behave. He measures the speaker's tone and recognizes it's a joke, not a drama or narration of events. Then, if he is in the room, assessing the speaker's inflections and body language, he can anticipate the timing of the punchline faster than any person can, and that's why he always beats us to the laugh."
That happens all the time in our house with my 15-year-old grey, Coco. 

The book is full of passages like that, stories that will have anyone who lives with parrots smiling, and perhaps even chuckling out loud.

Even those who do not live with parrots will find them humorous - and perhaps a bit hard to believe. But believe me, all the stuff he describes in the book about Tuco's behaviour is real. Most parrot keepers have experienced even more bizarre or outrageous behaviours by their feathered companions.

Tuco is one of the rare books that both entertains and informs. It also stimulates thought and introspection about how we view life, how we might deal with some of the issues described in the book.

The author does reach some conclusions, of sorts, and while I won't tell you what they are, some of what I read still percolates around my coffeepot of a brain, occasionally seeping out through its filters into my conscious. 

If you want to read a book that is just silly parrot stories, you might be disappointed. However, if you want to read a book full of those that also deals with some much more serious life issues - like bullying, environmentalism, or dealing with death - then this is a read for you.

African grey parrots in the wild. From the World Parrot Trust.