Saturday, 14 July 2018


2018 seems to be The Year Of Cedar Waxwing; at least in our part of the world.

They timed their arrival with ripening of Saskatoons - the dark blue berries ripening on medium-sized bushes growing wild all over the Canadian West. 
The berries were still green but the birds did not seem to mind. The first crop of the year and a beginning of what looks like a rich season.
Never mind - they will ripen fast with loads of other fruits to follow - cherries, both cultivated and wild, strawberries and blueberries, mountain ash fruits and more.

Saskatoon Berry (also called Service Berry) is an important source of food for countless creatures, including humans.

They are handsome birds, sleek, smooth feathered in elegant colours of browns on top, yellowish on the belly and tinged by gray with a hint of blue on the back.

All that beauty is accented by a black face mask (outlined in pure white), white linings in the wings, bright yellow hem on the tail and - above all - bright red ends of their flight feathers that, at the rest, give an impression of the wings being dipped in the old fashioned seal wax.
Oh, and there is a crown of feathers that rise up when the bird is excited.

What a fashion statement!
But wait, nothing in Nature is about vanity. Try to find a waxwing hiding in the canopy of cedars (Thuja) or Douglas Firs, Spruces or other conifers. Good luck searching; especially when the sun is shining and the shadows and higlights are at their best.

Cedar Waxwings have a close family - their cousins Bohemian Waxwings are a bit chubbier though a bit more fancy. They prefer to spend their summers in Northern parts of the globe. But when the winter gets tough and food is scarce they move a bit South, sometimes in very large flocks. Then they mingle with their grabby Cedar relatives.

Vegan diet might suit some, but most creatures require an occasional protein supplement. Waxwings are no exception.
I was trying to capture an image of a waxwing in flight and worked at it really hard. The light was great that morning so when I finally got my wish, I was ecstatic.
I ran home to check the images (for there were many, many clicks) on my computer and - oh, my goodness - there was more to the photo than I thought.
The bird was trying to get an orb spider who, in turn, had been trying to capture its dinner... a fly or a moth.

Eat and be eaten! 
That is the survival game.
With the spider gone the newly hatched river moths will be safe tonight. 

But only if the bird doesn't get them too.
Caddisflies came out in countless numbers. They dance their evening dances, mate in the air and provide meals to many nesting birds. Enough of them will manage to lay their eggs before they die.

June is a great time to plan a family. At the end of June a Mamma waxwing built her nest in a pine hedge by our basement door. It seems to me that while she was building, her partner stuck about; serving as an alarm system for her. I am not sure if or how much he helped with the nest building but as soon as she started laying the eggs he vanished. This was on June 24.

Despite the fact that the nest was straight in front of my face, it was hidden so well that I would have never found it. It was the harsh noon sun that betrayed the diligent waxwing female. A bright sparkle in her watchful eye gave her away.

A couple days later she had 4 elegant eggs in the nest. We tiptoed by as little as we had to and she began to understand that we were not to harm her or her nest.

July 14; the nest is bursting at the seams - and that is only the beginning. There are 4 tiny, bling creatures huddled together in their skillfully woven home. The daytime temperatures are soaring high, well into the 30 Celsius. And there is not a cloud in the sky. 
Yesterday we saw Mamma standing guard above the chicks - her wings spread wide, creating shade. This is only a beginning; we guess that she has at least 10 more days to go. A long time in life of a little bird.

Meanwhile, the fruits are ripening - blueberries, raspberries, cherries, even mountain ash berries are turning red. A large Nature buffet, free for all and at an easy reach.  It looks like the little ones will have enough to eat. Is she going to feed them on her own or is her partner coming back to help? Let us wait, perhaps the answer will present itself soon.
In any case, there are busy times ahead

Thursday, 31 May 2018


There are thousands of famous city skylines; all memorable, all architectural achievements of mankind.

This is a Kootenay River skyline!. 

It changes daily and once in a while it becomes surreal.

First thunderstorm was rolling in, temperature dropped from nearly 35 C to about 18. The sun that just disappeared behind the ridge painted the scene with wild colours.

Fifteen minutes and it was gone.


Camassia quamash versus Zigadenus venenosus  (Common versus Latin)

April showers brought May flowers.
Entire fields of them! 
Yellow Oregon Grapes, white Saskatoon berry and heavenly blue Camas among others.
Many other species will follow shortly.

Common Camas - Camassia quamash

Common Camas
Those who had such luck as to walk upon a field of wild, blue Camas (or Quamash), will understand the gentle touch that such a sighting leaves on the human soul.
These blue gems belong to the asparagus family and as such also appear in early spring. There are several species of camas, the one found in Southern Interior of BC is most likely Common Camas also called Small Camas, Camash or Quamash.

See my point? 
One Latin name, several common names and who is supposed to know which one is right?

They are native to North America and their small bulbs were an important source of food for the native populations of Southern British Columbia.

Indigenous people inhabiting the areas of Kootenay - Columbia regions used to spend their Spring-Fall months camping along the river banks, fishing, hunting and collecting plants and berries for food. 

Camas and other plants became so important that until this day one can make a safe guess about the locations of their campsites by the patches of these blue flowers.

Common Camas

Common Camas - good guy.
People wishing to experience the taste of starchy Camas bulb (some say that, when steamed or roasted,  it tastes somewhat like sweet potato) should be careful not to confuse it with the very similar bulb of  Death Camas.

Death Camas - bad guy.
While the common names of both are similar (Camas) these plants do belong to different families.

So learn your Latin people!

Latin names will clear the confusion caused by those who just shell out the names based on appearances.

Death Camas - Zigadenus venenosus
Death Camas (Zigadenus venenosus) contains powerful alkaloids that can cause death in animals, humans included.

Common Camas blooms earlier than Death Camas - and that is the problem for those who decide to collect the bulbs for both kinds are nearly identical in appearance.


Shop for your veggies in supermarkets or plant your own and Nature deal with the rest.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018


The Hidden Treasure Of Northern Woods

Calypso, the beautiful nymph of the old Greek legends, lived her solitary life on a remote Greek island of Ogygia. Loneliness is a heavy burden and Calypso decided to lure in the ancient Greek seafarer Odysseus, make him immortal and live happily ever after. Her plans twisted some other way and Calypso did not get her wish. Odysseus left the island leaving the immortal Calypso to her fate.

Just the same applies to another Calypso, an orchid that, every spring appears in the dark and shaded coniferous woods of the Northern hemisphere. It is fragile and beautiful, just as a nymph should be. And it will lure any able-to-spot-it traveler and hold his/her attention for quite a while.

Calypso does not produce nectar. Yet it can attract insects by flaunting a yellow tuft of fine hairs strategically positioned on its white lip and surrounded by striking purple-pink petals. 
Such elegant flower must produce a lot of nectar!!! 
So the insects land on for a feast.
Tricked you!
Too late.
The insect flies away, disappointed but with a bunch of pollen grains attached. 
Perhaps the next flower will yield some sweet stuff .... ?!?
Tricked you again!

Calypso orchid got its Latin name, Calypso bulbosa, for 2 reasons: 
Calypso refers to the nymph of Homer's Iliad.

Bulbosa refers to a starchy underground corm, that sustains the orchid during the time of need.

Calypso bulbosa bears several common names, all referring to flower's shape. This tiny orchid is often called 
Fairy Slipper or Venus slipper.
A fairy slipper indeed.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Of BLISTER BEETLES, Vesicants and Aphrodisiacs

What a topic!

May has arrived and with it a plethora of bugs, flowers and birds. One of the first beetles to be found in the sprouting grass looks like a miniature black cistern, large and heavy, moving slowly but with a great purpose to a destination known only to itself. 
Its head is large, the thorax narrower and the abdomen large and swollen with an internal cargo of eggs, soon to be deposited onto the new vegetation. 

 The abdomen is protected by a pair of hard wings (elytra) that, unlike in other beetles, cover
only about 3/4 of the abdomen.
Meet Short-winged Blister Beetle, Meloe angusticollis.

There are thousands of  Blister Beetle species occurring of  all over the world. Some are colorful, some iridescent (or both) and some simply black (or violet black). 
They all have a thing in common: 
Upon feeling threatened they produce an agent  that, at best irritates the skin, at moderate causes painful blisters and at the worst kills an unfortunate creature that dares to play with the beetle or even consume it. As always, there are some species more potent than the others. Our Short-winged is not the worst but it still can cause some damage.

Have a closer look. There are brownish droplets of some semi-liquid substance on its wings and on its legs. 

The droplets of the oozing liquid contain a powerful toxin, cantharidin. This is a substance that can cause skin damage and bleeding and gastrointestinal damage when ingested. It can damage kidneys to the state of no repair. 
Blistering agents are called vesicants.

 But, because cantharidin affects blood capillaries, it can also cause prolonged erections, acting as a dangerous aphrodisiac. Who and how tried it first remains undocumented. 
Do NOT try, a wrong dose could kill you.  Viagra might be a much better option!

There is a whole lot of reading about the blister beetles, cantharidin and various interesting tidbits related to the topic.
Little did I know, when, at the the very beginning of May, I met this creature in my yard.

I also discovered that it was probably on its way to lay a bunch of eggs on the plants in our garden where the bees would soon come to forage. The little blister beetle larvae would attach themselves to a bee and let it carry them to the bee's nest (there are many solitary bees out there and they are the most likely target of the blister beetle larvae). 
Once in the nest, the beetle larvae will parasitise on the bee larvae or at least eat all the food supplied for the young bees. 

There you have it - it is a complicated world out there. 
There is an excellent article about these creatures - just click HERE

Wednesday, 9 May 2018


When it comes to chemical compounds such as pigments, plants dominate the living world.                                                                 Pigments are "molecules that absorb specific wavelengths (energies) of light and reflect all others."                                  Pigments are colored: the color we see is the net effect of all the light reflecting back at us. ... (Wikipedia)
 Insects and birds might come in second, but theirs are often the works of physics, not chemistry.

Iridescence (also known as goniochromism) is the phenomenon of certain surfaces that appear to gradually change colour as the angle of view or the angle of illumination changes. (Wikipedia)

In this photograph, organic chemistry of the green leaves meets the physics of the iridescent feathers of the hummingbird. And I am not even addressing the blue of the sky. That is a completely different matter. Go Google, go!

Every child knows the iridescence of hummingbirds. 
But look carefully and you will discover that most other birds also use the daylight to their "dresscode" advantage. 

Violet-green swallows showed up
and in the low morning sun their feathers flashed with greens, cyans, magentas and - violets.

At noon, when the sun was harsh the splendor all but disappeared.

Their larger cousins, the Tree swallows prefer to dress in blues. 
They too shine when the light hits them at the right angle.

Tree Swallow

Violet-green Swallow

Here they are, both hard at work; building their nests takes a lot of material. Sharing a pile of dry grass they work side by side - giving us an opportunity to have a closer look and to wonder about the complex beauty of it all.

Tree Swallow

It is Spring in the Kootenays. It is a wonderful world. 
The world of chemistry, physics and ..... well, simply enjoy it all.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

FERRUGINOUS HAWK: a rare guest in the mountain valley

The Latin name of this large hawk is Buteo regalis; the royal hawk.There is a good reason for that because this is the largest of all North American hawks.

Here, however, it does not behave in a regal fashion!
It does what all the raptors do before a takeoff: unloads its internal contents; in a very unceremonious fashion.

Each time that you observe this kind of behaviour, prepare to take your photos, the bird is preparing to lift off.
As we all know from the airline regulations "every gram counts" when one travels via air.. 

Lift off it did! 
Leaving this narrow, rocky valley and the very last stretch of beautiful Kootenay River, it started on its last migratory leg - probably seeking the lush meadows of Creston Valley.
All I could say was "See you next year; if we are both lucky." 

Why am I so excited about this bird? 
It used to be quite common but, just like so many other species, its numbers are declining. 
Repeat the mantra: over and over again - habitat destruction, food poisoning and, 
Can you believe that at this date someone still feels the urge to shoot at it (and many other species). They call it sport! I dare to call it ignorance or worse.

In any case - it is flying to more open areas inhabited by ground squirrels, rabbits and voles. Little birds do not need to worry.