Join Project FeederWatch And Help The Birds

The black-capped chickadees dart between the spruce trees and the feeders, downy woodpeckers cling to the suet cages, and white-breasted nuthatches scale down the tree trunk head first. These are just some of the sights I witness every day at my bird feeders, and they fill me with delight as I look out the window. The woodpeckers even let me walk right by them on my way to the horses.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to those that know my love for animals, but feeding the wild birds is an activity I truly enjoy. Watching them interact, seeing how fast they can empty a feeder, and trying to identify every little winged-wonder passing through is a great way for me to relax.

feederwatch

The Project FeederWatch kit.

This year I have decided to put my bird watching to good use and signed up for Project FeederWatch, a joint program operated by Bird Studies Canada and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Project FeederWatch runs from November to April. Participants count the birds they see at their feeders (or in the vicinity) and submit observations either online or through the mail. These observations help scientists understand and track winter bird populations.

One of the great things about this program is that you can decide the amount of time you wish to commit to it. Going away for a few weeks? Not a problem. Want to watch for over an hour on your count days? Great! Only have five minutes? That’s perfect.

This program is ideal for everyone from the novice bird watcher to the experienced ones. To participate, you need to be a member of Bird Studies Canada (it cost me $35) and indicate your desire to be in the program. You will then be sent a kit with detailed instructions on the program, how to make and record observations, information on choosing feeders and seed, tips for identifying birds, and a full colour poster of the most common birds observed in your region.

I’m really excited about putting my observations to good use and helping science. If you already feed birds over the winter, or have considered setting up some feeders, please think about joining Project FeederWatch. The more participants, the better it will be for the birds!

Surveying The Credit For Spawning Brookies

Brook trout are some of the most beautiful fish I’ve ever seen. With their green, red and orange colours becoming even more brilliant during the spawn, they are truly a sight to behold. However, they are also some of the most secretive fish to hide in our coldwater streams, taking cover and blending into the river bottom so that people passing by often fail to notice them.

Due to their secretive nature, I was not anticipating to see many fish when we embarked on a Credit Valley Conservation Spawning Survey this morning along the Credit River, but luck would prove otherwise.

credit river

The Credit River

The morning dawned with gusty winds and cool temperatures. By 9AM, a large group of volunteers had gathered in a parking lot to pull on waders, grab polarized glasses, and await instructions. Some of the volunteers were anglers, some were members of groups such as Izaak Walton and Trout Unlimited, and some were coming out for the first time to see what a spawning survey entailed. We broke into four smaller groups, each taking a stretch of the Upper Credit, looking for evidence of spawning brook trout.

Eager for new water and a nice walk, Darrell and I chose to visit a stretch further away. This portion of the river had some incredible natural features and reinforced my love for the Credit.

We were lucky enough to be working with Jon Clayton, an aquatic biologist at CVC, and as always, I enjoyed his passion for fish and being able to learn from him during the survey.

Spawning surveys are a fantastic activity for anyone from the novice to the experienced surveyor. All they require is a willingness to observe, and a willingness to wade in the river when necessary. The point of the survey is to look for redds, the ‘nest’ that fish create for their eggs. Usually, this area will be lighter than the surrounding riverbed, with sediment and debris removed, as the fish will have ‘excavated’ the area with their tails. When spotting a possible redd, groups will come to a consensus on what category they believe it is. A Category 1 redd is one where you have seen fish on it and there is no doubt that it is anything but a redd. A Category 2 redd is one that you feel strongly is a redd, but you don’t see fish on it. A Category 3 redd is one that looks borderline. It looks like there is a clearing, but it could possibly be from other disturbances such vegetation being uprooted, and other animals being in the area. Sightings of redds and fish are marked on a map.

We started out with the usual Category 3 sightings. Areas that looked like possible redds, but not enough for any of us to be certain. Beavers were extremely active in the area – piles of sticks, downed trees, and paths were evident nearly everywhere. This caused a degree of uncertainty in our redd assessments.

I assumed the day was going to involve several Category 2 and 3 redds, but while crossing the stream, something wonderful happened – Darrell’s Fishdar went off. I have yet to encounter anyone with the ability to spot fish as easily as Darrell does. Every little movement catches his eye, and he spots fish where others don’t. What a lucky happening for us. In a pool in the middle of the river, in an area lacking a colour difference or anything that would indicate an obvious redd, Darrell happened to notice a few brook trout.

As we stood in the river and watched, more fish became apparent, and their bright spawning colours were fantastic. One of the bigger fish was actively guarding his area, with many others swimming in and out. Here were several actively spawning brook trout, and we almost missed it. In the end we counted at least 15 brookies. The three of us stood in the river and watched for several minutes. I could have easily sat on the bank and watched the action for hours. Fish are fascinating.

Eventually, we forced ourselves to continue on. Now we had a good reminder of what to look for. Since brook trout spawn close to groundwater upwellings, there are often many redds and fish in suitable areas. In fact, their spawning area can look like one giant redd.

We continued on with several more possible redd sightings. While we tried to stay out of the water, it was often an easier route than walking the banks. Cedars lined the river and provided a lovely aroma. Where we found springs, we often found redds.

Wading up river, we came across another stretch of Category 1 redds with several brookies on them. We stopped to admire them once again. It always feels like a privilege to see these fish, no matter what time of the year.

In no time at all, we reached the end of our stretch and headed back to the parking lot. A morning spent talking fish, observing fish, and wandering along a beautiful river, is pretty much the ideal way to spend your time.

The information collected today is helpful for the conservation authority to compare the fish population over time, and locate important spawning areas. Spawning surveys are also a great way to spend some time outdoors, visit new water, and meet like-minded people. Maybe you will even spot some beautiful brookies.

If you would like to attend a spawning survey, Credit Valley Conservation holds a couple of them each fall. There is another survey next weekend (November 1st) in the Forks of the Credit area. For more information, or to register, click here.

Geocaching Is For The Dogs

While spending time on the water is always our preference, the dogs would often prefer to go for a walk. Today we decided to give the dogs what they wanted, but incorporated a bit of geocaching to keep it interesting for us.

Darrell and I decided to grab a few geocaches we had missed in the past along the Guelph-Elora Trail, or “GET”. There are approximately 40 caches along this trail and we grab a few each time we go to this area for a walk or a bike ride. We had several of the caches for two concessions of the trail, but were missing nine.

Molly, Darrell, and Jack.

Molly, Darrell, and Jack.

The trail travels along a hydro corridor and the first thing we noticed was that it had recently been cleared. The brush had been knocked back along the trail and around each tower. While making for a nice walk, I wondered if any of the caches may have been impacted.

Only two minutes into the trek, we both realized that wearing gloves and toques would have been a good idea. It was chilly! The dogs didn’t seem to notice the chill as they raced from one side of the path to the other, following scent trails and pulling at the ends of their leashes. Jake usually travels in a straight path, but Molly is all over the place. The setter in her comes out loud and clear on a walk.

Generally speaking, Darrell is a better geocache finder, and he found our first couple quite quickly. Despite wet feet, clinging branches, and slippery slopes, he seemed quite happy to grab each cache. We signed the logbooks, traded some items, and logged our finds online from the trail.

geocaching

A larger geocache container. Caches of this size usually have items that you can trade for. One of the caches today actually had a fishing lure in it (a spoon). I would have loved to take it, but I didn’t have anything to leave in its place.

geocache

Time to sign the logbook.

geocache

The smaller the geocache, the trickier it is to find. This one was hidden in a pretty neat place. I only found it because I thought it was weird for a wire to be sticking out of that spot.

On my old phone, I had paid for and downloaded the Geocaching app. The app worked well and I was planning to download it on my new LG G3, but I found a free app, c:geo, that looked just as good. This was my first test of the new app and I have to say that I loved it. It was easy to use and navigated well. For what I need in a geocaching app, this one fits the bill. I highly recommend this app for Android users (I do not know if it’s available for iOS).

Two of the geocaches stumped us for more minutes than I care to admit. We looked around in quite a broad area before I was able to find them. I’ll admit that I was proud to be the one to find them, not Darrell. What stumped us was that both of these caches were hidden in slightly different locales than the other ones. The dogs seemed to think we were crazy for walking back and forth in one area so many times, but they enjoyed gathering new smells.

A couple of geocaches had narrow misses from the recent clear-cutting of the trail. Both were hidden in trees that had lost several branches. We didn’t stop to check on the caches we had found previously, but it wouldn’t surprise me if one was missing.

trail

Bridge out! It’s hard to tell in this picture, but there used to be a bridge connecting the trail. If you want to cross now, you’re best to wait for the summer when it’s dry.

The colours make autumn so enjoyable.

The colours make autumn so enjoyable.

Jack enjoyed watching the birds that we flushed from the shrubs. He notices every little noise and stops to have a look. The gobbling turkeys at a farm near one geocache location were almost too much for him. I enjoyed looking at the reds, oranges, and yellows of the surrounding vegetation.

We called it a day after collecting the nine missing caches. The dogs were happy to jump back in the car and head home after all that fresh air and exploration. Geocaching is an excellent way for all of us to get outside and have some fun.

Why Pinktober Matters To Me

I am very lucky to have two fantastic sisters. Born within five years of each other, we were often screaming, fighting, and ganging up two on one in our childhood years. We also covered for each other when necessary, shared a passion for horses, had long talks about life, and enjoyed a lot of laughs. For three sisters, we could not look more different. We span the spectrum on hair colour (dark brunette to blonde), body shape, and clothing choice. In fact, the three of us had been showing horses for a few years before most people at the shows realized we were sisters.

Alyssa, me (Rebecca), and Leslie.

Alyssa, me (Rebecca), and Leslie (this picture is from several years ago).

As the oldest, I have always felt protective of my sisters. I never want them to be hurt, I always want to look after them, and want everything to work out perfectly for them. But that’s not always possible.

A few years ago I was having a typical day at work. I’d dealt with some upset customers, solved some issues for the technicians, and was having a nice chat with my coworker when my phone indicated I had a voicemail. The message stills plays in my brain, clear as a bell. The one sentence felt like it was on repeat as it played over and over in my head.

“Alyssa has breast cancer.”

I was sure that someone was playing a cruel joke, so as I walked out of the office and into the storage room for some privacy, I called our middle sister. Through tears, she confirmed my worst fears.

What. The. Fuck.

Excuse the language, but there was no other way for me to process my emotions. She was by far the healthiest of the three of us. She ate well, was extremely active (she had gone to university on a rowing scholarship), and was always cognizant of her health. I tried getting in touch with Alyssa and had to settle for a text. I had no idea how to be there for her, no idea what she wanted or needed, and could not begin to imagine what she was feeling.

I won’t go into the details of her battle, as she has started documenting it in a beautifully written blog, All Things Alyssa. I encourage everyone to read at least a few of her posts. Whether you’re a cancer patient, a survivor, a caregiver, or a supporter, her words will really open your eyes.

The fantastic news is that Alyssa IS a survivor. She’s in remission, has since married a wonderful man who loves her very much, and has the most adorable 7-month old son (I may be a bit biased on that, but my nephew truly is the cutest and happiest kid I’ve ever known). She has returned to school and is working on her Masters in chemical biology. Her hope is to go med school, and if there’s one thing I know about her, she can do anything she sets her mind to.

My sister found her lump while doing a self-exam. She was aware enough that she should be doing self-exams, something I’ll admit I’ve never been good at remembering. Then, despite the fact that everyone told her she was too young to have breast cancer (especially with no family history), she insisted on follow-up testing.

This is why Pinktober matters. Having a month where breast cancer patients and survivors are encouraged to share their stories, spreading awareness about screening and breast health…it’s so important!

After my sister’s diagnosis, I was enrolled in a high-risk program that meant I was scheduled for a mammogram and MRI. Following the Monday mammogram, Darrell and I went on vacation up north for a week of fishing. On the Wednesday morning I was sitting at the campsite when my phone went off. The woman on the other end of the line told me that something had been noticed on the mammogram and I needed to come in for a follow-up. Darrell returned from his walk to find me sobbing.

The rest of the week went by in a blur, as my mind kept wandering off into questions of “Is this happening?”, “Did they really find something?”. What I later found out, and wish I had been told at the time, is that many women get a call to come back in after their first mammogram. It’s not abnormal, so try not to panic.

I ended up in the hospital several more times for MRIs, mammograms, ultrasounds, and finally a biopsy. Through all of it, everyone assured me that I was too young to have breast cancer.

Really? My youngest sister’s diagnosis was the reason I was there!

Darrell came to every appointment I asked him to attend, put up with my psychosis during that time of uncertainty, and was generally just amazing. When the results of the biopsy were negative, I felt unbelievably lucky.

This summer I almost chose to skip the annual mammogram and MRI. Then I reminded myself of what my sister had been through. I read stories from breast cancer patients and survivors. I thought about how lucky I am to live in an age with screening tools (even if they’re not perfect). And I thought about how much I love my life. So I went.

Screening is important. Self-examination is important. Supporting research is important. This Pinktober, don’t get annoyed by all the pink everywhere, be thankful for the reminder to stay on top of your health. Participate in fundraising events, volunteer where you can. Donate to organizations that support patients and their family. Ask someone if they mind sharing their story with you.

Pinktober reminds me to be thankful that I have my amazing sisters in my life. They are incredible women. It reminds me not to take my own health for granted. Breast Cancer is brutal, and I long for the day when a cure is found. Until that day, a month of Breast Cancer Awareness will always be a good thing.

Take a moment to read the stories of some breast cancer survivors, including my sister, in this feature from the Hamilton Spectator.