Saturday, November 28, 2009

The New York Blue Jay

Blue Jay, Orlando, FloridaImage by Rick Leche Photographer via Flickr

Whilst we, my New York family and I, sat calmly in the lounge, some playing video games, others watching, we heard a loud thud; a bird had crashed head on into the large glass panes of the front window. We raced to see if it was still there, it was; the bird was unconscious and hanging from a branch by one foot. Filled with pity and a little fear, I grabbed a towel and, under the supervision and encouragements of my beautiful stepsisters and husband, gently lowered the bird to the floor, allowing it to recuperate from it's collision. It flew away not too long after, avoiding an enthousiastic photoshoot. I sure hope it's ok.

The stunned bird was a gorgeous Blue Jay (Cianocitta cristata). Blue Jays are common birds that are present throughout the year from Central to Eastern North America. If their flashy blue, black and white colouration didn't give them away,  this large songbird's booming jeer should help you pin point them quite easily (click here to listen). They genereally produce their calls when perched and are silent in flight.

Blue FeathersImage by awrose via Flickr
Interestingly enough, the only pigment present on the Blue Jay's feathers is melanin, which make up the dark brown/black patterns on the tail, wings and the collar. The blue is caused by how light scatters or refracts through feather's barbs. This explains why on days when the sun is hidden behind a thick veil of clouds, Blue Jays appear more greyish that on beautiful sunny days.
Speaking of feathers, Blue Jays, perform anting, a practice by which a bird uses ants or subtances created by ants for preening (tidying their feathers) during moutling. Apparently, some individuals have been observed tripping over their owns tails whilst zealously trying to apply the ants to hard to reach feathers. (Now that I would love to see!)

Male and female Blue Jays are practically identical, they can be told apart by keen observers from their behaviour during mating season. The male can be observed feeding the female either in their newly built nest or on a nearby branch, this is refered to as courtship feeding. A practice also observed in humans, if you are lucky.

I have had the utmost pleasure extracting Blue Jays from mist nets, at the McGill's Bird Observatory. There is nothing quite like holding a live wild bird. If I had known at the time, I may have kept a stash of acorns in my pocket as it is their favorite snack. However, I was quite busy trying to untangle their tongue (yes, you read right) and feet from the net without braking anything in the process - they thrash around so vigorously.

Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata) – Algonquin Pro...Image via Wikipedia

Blue Jays are not known for migrating, actually, we know very little about their wintering habits. Sometimes they migrate south, others they don't. Nevertheless, I very much like seeing them add a touch of colour to the slumbering winter landscape.

For more information on this beautiful bird and others, check out Hinterland's Who's Who.
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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving Turkey

         It's happy thanksgiving for all except for turkeys. As we enjoy the Macy's thanksgiving parade and the arrival of Santa Claus, I can not help but feel sad for all the turkeys out there that will be slaughtered and roasted for tradition. As if to strenghten my dietairy resolve, on my trip to down to New York, I caught glimps of a rafter of wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) from the train window. Due to a combination of surprize and being in a train zipping down the tracks, I missed a great photo oppportunity, oh well. There were four individuals, I'm guessing 3 females and one male, pecking around in a field. They looked a lot like this picture I found on wikipedia.

The two easily identifiable males on this picture are displaying, they don't always walk around all puffed up like this. Turkey's like lions, live in territorial groups of many females and generally one sometimes two males, called rafters (vs pride of lions).

Turkeys are a staple item of Thanksgiving dinner for the last two centuries, before then food was harder to come by and families were happy to celebrate with whatever fowl they could get. Thanksgiving is a North American celebration and disputably first took place in Plymouth where both Pilgrims and Indians joined together and feasted for three days thanking God for allowing them to survive through the winter and their first succesful harvest. Apparently, turkey became the fowl of choice after Queen Elizabeth's declared Rost Goose as St-Michael's Day offical meal. Michaelmas in Britain became associated with Thanksgiving in the States. So why don't we eat roast goose at thanksgiving? Turkey was more abundant and simpler to catch than goose in the New World.

Wild turkeys, contrairly to their domesticated counterparts, are quite agile flyers. They can be found from  the south of Canada to the south of Mexico. Over the years, they have been extirpated from various regions such as New Hampshire and Quebec due to over hunting and habitat loss. Thanks to hunting laws and habitat protection they are slowly making a come back. I am glad to announce that I have seen them pecking around the Eastern Townships (Quebec) these past few years.

Turkey is a good source of protein and is naturally low in fat. It's also loaded with zinc, iron, phosphorous, potassium and vitamin B. If your counting your calories, white meat is less fat and calorie rich than the darker meat.


Take care!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Alien Gnome Bandits

                                                                                     by Fred Conlon
«There is something terribly, wonderfully wrong here. Two opened jawed aliens are tromping off with your helpless, hapless garden gnome.»

This simply made my day and I felt compelled to share it with the world. I discovered this recycled garden sculpture in the wonderfully entertaining Skymall magazine along side many other hysterical and generally useless objects. Kudos to the artist that makes these with recylced and found metal.

Take care!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Virginia Creeper

Virginia Creeper
Parthenocissus quinqefolium

My favorite vine, especially in Fall because of it's beautiful colour.

It is characterised by a palmately compound leaves composed of five leaflets, hence the latin quinqefolium - five leaves. However, younger vines may have smaller numbers. In the case of the specimen below, there are four. The leaflets are dentate (toothed edges) distinguishing this vine from poison ivy whether all five leaflets are there or not.

The Virginia Creeper produces clusters of small dark purple berries in late summer to early fall. These are not to be eaten. Although the taste should discourage you from eating more than one. The oxalic acid contained in the berries may be toxic to mammals, but these berries are a good source of food for birds during the winter months. So in addition to bringing a beautiful colour to your yard in fall, it may also attract some birds.

This woody vine is native to central and eastern North America. It grows in dense wooded areas but also along road sides and frequently up brick houses.

Take care!
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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Hurricane crafts - folded paper and jean skirts

This week, mother nature granted me the experience of living through a small hurricane. How exciting! The ocean sends waves of towering rage crashing down onto the beach, trees are whipped about like giant blades of grass, roads become rivers, windows shake, walls creak, and I remain inside, safe and warm, witness to nature's destructive powers. I'm told that we were lucky, the hurricane did not cause too much damage - in my little world at least. In our building, it broke a couple windows in the glass covered passage to the parking lot forcing management to seal it up for our protection and soaked a staircase and a couple flats leaving a foul smell. Poor Petester's car got flooded and we have yet to find out if it will survive this ordeal. Roads were closed and so were schools. Some people lost their houses to the ocean, my heart goes out to them. Nevertheless, once my hubby was safely home, the stormy weather and the discovery of put me in a creative DIY frenzy.

As my darling love settled into a comfortable position for chimera destruction (a.k.a Resistance 2, a video game), I transformed the lounge into a magazine recycling factory. You see, I love magazines, I can't settle for the online versions, I must have a tangible copy. Although I have restricted my purchases to the essentials, stock pile them, and then recycle them when the time comes, I wanted to find other uses for the glossy pages.

So far, I have found and tested three.

No. 1 - Zigzag bangles

These are lots of fun to make. (You can also use chip bags but I don't eat much of those.) I've figured out two sizes, the small as seen above, and a larger single bangle. Both are available in various colours at my etsy shop if you wish to have one of your own.

No. 2 - Paper Flowers

We got this beautiful gold tipped tulip vase for our wedding, it proudly showcased my birthday flowers while they lasted but without them it seemed lonely. These flowers were made with 3" circles cut from magazine pages based on a tutorial I found here. After making 16 of them, I tried the snowflake technique to allow for light to pass through the flowers and found that allowed me to use pages that had images that I didn't like as much since it removed the emphasis on the paper letting the form shine through. The stems we're supposed to be made from planting wire and plant tape but because of the hurricane, I was unable to raid the local craft store so I used pipe cleaners instead - it's alright but it's not perfect.

No. 3 - Envelopes

Why not? Surprisingly it was harder to design a template than I thought.  I hope the post office will accept them.

One paper cut too many led me to my next project. This was by far the most important project of the day and the one I am most proud of:  my newly recycled Hurricane Jean Skirt. I started with an old pair of bermuda jean shorts that I hadn't worn all summer.

And with the help of a Thread Banger tutorial (that you can find here), I turned it into a wonderful jean skirt. The project took me about 4-5 hours to complete from seam ripping to the finishing details. I will definetly be modifying more jeans, it wasn't that hard and the result is a fantastic skirt.

 That evening, hubby, my new skirt and I curled up on the couch and watched Jaws thankful to still have electricity. What an amazing day.

Take care!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Buying a Field Guide

I recently went looking for a tree identification field guide that covers all North America, it took me so long to decide that my poor husband became quite aggravated and retired grumpily to the comic book section and read an entire comic. This is a grave state of affairs so for the sake of all supportive spouses out there, here is my Top 10 list of things to look for in a field guide. 

  1. Size : It's not a reference manual, it's a field guide. I like to be able to slip it in into my back pocket or easily conceal it in my purse. (You would be surprised what else I keep handy.)
  2. Drawings vs Pictures: I prefer drawings since they better represent the essence of the species instead of individual characteristics. It is also possible to draw important identification details that are not always visible in a picture.
  3. Range Maps: Super important, especially if the guide covers a large area (e.g. North America). I prefer them to be on the same page instead of at the back. Who likes additional page flipping anyway?
  4. Common and Latin Names: A good field guide should have both and that's that. 
  5. A good written description: The description should include specific characteristics such as size, gender distinction, age distinctions, habitat preference, etc.. I also enjoy the additional knowledge of whether the species is edible (mostly for plants) or venomous .
  6. Built in Ruler: Size sometimes determines the species, nothing better that having a handy ruler you can't loose. (Less important for bird identification since it's mostly done at a distance.)
  7. Identification Markers: Arrows on the illustration pinpointing specific things to look for (e.g. distinctive markings or coloration).
  8. Glossary: (or informative introduction to the field) Sometimes scientific words make no sense.
  9. Index: Preferably with both latin and common names.
  10. Intuitive Organization: The species must be organized in a way that makes it easy for you to find what your looking for. It depends on the depth of your knowledge on the subject and there are a wide range of options out there ( e.g. by colour, by approximate size, by habitat, taxonomically, etc.).
 It's not always possible to find the perfect guide for all topics, sometimes the choice is quite limited. But when the options seem endless, knowing your preferences helps narrow down your search.

Here are three of my favorite field guides :

Peterson First Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-central North America (The Peterson Field Guide Series)

:) Gorgeous Drawings                                  :( No latin names
:) Identification Markers                               :( No ruler
:) Perfect size                                               :( No range maps                       

Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification, Revised and Updated (Golden Field Guide from St. Martin's Press)

:) 9/10                                                         :( No identification markers

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Fifth Edition

:) Depiction of adult                       :( No identification markers
(male and female) and juvenile plumage                                       
:) Range maps                               :( Knowledge of bird taxonomy required for navigation

During my technical degree we were basically brainwashed into swearing by Peterson field guides, now I find that other publications meet my needs better. I'd love to know what you're favorite field guide is why. Do you swear loyalty to a particular publisher? Is your top ten similar to mine? Let me know!

Take care!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

New look on the Climate Change Campaign

While reading through my favorite blogs, I came across this random environmental post by Yes and Yes. I felt the need to post it on my blog as well. This video is a public outreach strategy by the 350 group.
Their message is that we must reduce the quantity of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere from 390ppm to 350ppm. This number comes to us from climate specialists and apparently is the upper limit of CO2 there can be in the atmosphere without repercussions on the global climate. They are looking for support in order to press the point of climate change and green house gas emissions during the United Nations meeting taking place in Copenhagen during December of this year. Their website is very interactive and you can easily spread the word through links to facebook, twitter and youtube, just to name a few. They put some information about the cause but very little individual actions one can take to reduce CO2 emissions on a daily basis. But individual action is not their aim, they want to influence corporations and governments to do something about it. I signed their online petition and you can too by clicking here.

Unfortunately I missed the International Day of Climat Action which was October 24th, I was unaware of it's existence. I'll know for next year.

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Saturday, November 7, 2009

Sock Monster

My posts as of late have been scientific of nature and the upcoming posts promise to be similar. I felt it was the time to interject another recycled craft project. The world seems to have been struck with the cute japanese-style stuffed toys craze, from the Ugly Dolls to stray sock monsters. Well, I have not been spared from this affliction. The only thing between me and my own army of these cute toys, is my husband who refuses to purchase something so useless and that I could make myself.  So I did.

I guess I would characterize it as some kind of bunny like creature. It's cute and scary all at once - fascinating; it sleeps in the lounge. Anyway, it was very simple to make, all you need is :
  • 1 sock (preferably with a distinct heel colour)
  • Stuffing material
  • Black and pink thread
  • Sewing needle and thimble
  • Scissors
  • Chopsticks (optional)
Step 1: Cut down the middle of the toes to about 1 inch above the heel and sew the front and the back of the sock together along to cut creating two bunny ears. Cut off the elastic band.

Step 2: Stuff the bunny. Use chopsticks to stuff the ears, it makes it easier. Make sure you add sufficient stuffing in the heel to make it stick out a bit. Play with the stuffing to give your little monster the desired shape.

Step 3: Sew up the bottom. I used a simple running-stitch all around the opening, pulled it together and added three stitches to keep it together before tying a knot and cutting the excess thread.

Step 4: Sew on a face.  You can use extra-pieces of fabric to make the different parts of the face like the Ugly Dolls but I went with embroidery. It was easier at the time. I added rosy cheeks with a coloured pencil.

VoilĂ ! You have your very own monster like cute stuffed recycled toy. There are endless possibilities out there and this was the first of my stuffed toys attempts, I'll hopefully improve over time. On that note, thanks for reading.

Take care!

Recommended Book :

Stray Sock Sewing, Too: More Super-Cute Sock Softies to Make and Love

Friday, November 6, 2009

Post-Halloween Sugar Rush & Garter Snakes

Halloween was spent in New York this year; my Wolf, DMoon, Petester and myself got all dressed up 80s popstar style, trick-or-treated and sung by the roaring flames of a bonfire. It was magical, it was epic, it was cold.

As November rolled around, we groaned our way out of bed and into the forest for an adventure. Boys being boys, they brought along a pellet riffle. Why? To shoot at stuff. I don't think I'll ever completely understand boys, but I digress. We wandered through the forest, the boys targeting signs and painted trees, whilst I chose to silently pray we didn't come across a squirrel or anything else that could be considered a moving target.

We climbed up a pile of boulders and there, sunning itself on a sunlight rock, a common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis). Unfortunately, my trigger happy boys made it dissapear before I could catch or 
Common Garter Snake
snap a picture of it. This snake is native to North America and is the most widely distributed snake we have. It can be found coast to coast from as south as Florida to the northern latitudes of the James Bay, Canada.
Garter snakes are known for the stripped pattern along their body, generally yellow and black but this is quite variable. The individual we caught a glimps of had orange strippes and was between 1-1.5ft long, it was a small garter snake since their average size is between 3-4ft.

How about some interesting facts. Garter snakes are not toxic to humans although they may release a foul-smelling liquid is you handle them too much. This species is ovoviviparous, a sweet word meaning that they give birth to live, wiggling, young - as opposed to laying eggs like most reptiles. Its diurnal, meaning it's out and about during the day. Last but not least, in addition to worms and amphibians (e.g. frogs and salamanders), they also like to munch on fish, rodents and small birds. How impressive would that be, to see a snake catch a bird.

I kept my eyes peeled for other garter snakes, but to no avail. I did however see skunk cabbages, a huge spider, jelly mold, a beech tree grove, a giant oak leaf and a mysterious red-berry plant. I'll tell you more about these sightings another time, along with some pictures and more fun facts.

Just as our forest ramble ended, so must this post for I must get on with the dishes. I end with our last encounter, another tribe of rambling humans. The alpha male of this tribe approached DMoon, who was carrying the riffle at the time, inquiring after the weapon. Musing over the possibility of shooting some squirrels, he asked if we had shot something to which I responded, "Not while I'm around". The alpha male, turned swiftly in my direction, gave me a once over and said, "You must be one of those Naturalists right?". Having never put much thought towards the question, this identification, although said in a condescending manor, turned out to be true. I am a Naturalist, a person that studied Natural History or a wildlife enthusiast. I guess this is what this blog is all about, the ramblings of a Naturalist. Thank you sir, who ever you are.

Take care!
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