Dear Readers, I have been to Canada enough times now to not feel completely at a loss. I don’t fluff up my feathers when Canadians stand on the right and the left of the escalator (unlike Londoners who are obligate ‘stand on the right, walk on the left’ -ers). I usually go to the correct side of the car when I’m a passenger. I have realised that most Canadians don’t add ‘eh’ to the end of every sentence. But, more profoundly, I am starting to recognise some of the birds and plants that I see, and it’s this, more than anything, that helps me to feel at home. However, a trip to Collingwood, a town on the shores of Georgian Bay, Lake Huron, reminded me of how much I still have to learn.
We stayed with Rosemary and Linda, my husband’s aunts, and their bird feeder attracts all kinds of interesting creatures. Take the magnificent grackle, for example. What a splendid bird, and nobody’s fool, I’m sure. We have no grackles in Europe, and so they are always a treat, especially in the spring when the males are at their most iridescent.
The bird feeder attracts American goldfinches as well: the black and white patterns on the wings are reminiscent of the European goldfinch, but the citrus-yellow plumage and black crest of the male are very different.
And we have no equivalent of a cardinal in the UK. I am always surprised at how large they are: I am expecting a finch-sized bird, but they are larger, and showier, and altogether more splendid. The male and the female always arrived together, and I loved their soft, whistling calls to one another.
I was surprised to see large flocks of blue jays as well: I’d assumed that these were more solitary birds, but during a walk along the lake shore later in the day we spotted a flock of at least thirty birds.
In the UK, we have only two sparrow species, but North America is much more richly endowed with these ‘little brown jobs’, and very pretty they are too.
And some creatures are rather more familiar. There are European house sparrows…
and the grey squirrels take great pleasure in shaking their tails at Linda and Rosemary’s dog Charlie. Charlie can contain himself for a while, but his patience is not never-ending and eventually he has to bark at them. Not that they seem to care much. They can tuck away a good inch of the sunflower seeds in the feeder at one sitting.
But the wildlife in Collingwood isn’t just about the bird feeder. We took Charlie for several walks along the shore. Georgian Bay is a magnet for wildlife – there is the lake itself, the reed beds, the woods and the shoreline to provide food and shelter for all manner of creatures. We spotted a muskrat and a passing osprey (and on neither occasion was I fast enough with the camera) but here are some of the things that we did spot.
You cannot move for red-winged blackbirds, calling and displaying and clowning around. They are not closely related to European blackbirds, which are thrushes: they are Icterids (the name means ‘jaundiced ones’), and the group includes the new world orioles, the grackles and the bobolink. I saw a female red-winged blackbird, and didn’t even recognise what she was, so different is she from the male.
The lake shore is full of dogwood and rushes, which makes it an ideal spot for displaying males.
The woods at the lake edge are full of sweet violets, and the smell reminds me of those chalky parma violet sweets that you used to be able to buy. The scent is both delicious and cloying, with an undertone of decay – Linda said that it reminded her a little of manure, and she’s right. A little of the smell goes a long way.
We had hoped to see a turtle of some description: there are snapping turtles and spotted turtles, and possibly painted turtles, but not a turtle did we see apart from this one.
The area where this chap has been ‘planted’ apparently used to be a popular spot for the living turtles to lay their eggs, but I guess they won’t be doing that here anymore. The irony does not escape me, nor many of the Collingwood residents.
However, we did see this magnificent chap or chappess, so all is not lost for the herpetological residents of the lake. I do believe that s/he might be a Northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens) but feel free to correct me.
And then, on our last afternoon before heading to the skyscrapers of Toronto, we visited John and Jo’s house. They have a stream running through their back garden, and it is the most serene spot, perfect before a return to the hubbub.
The grass is studded with coltsfoot (which I had never thought of as being a woodland plant, but which is thriving here).
There are toad lilies and bloodroot (which reminded me of our wood anemones) and the trillium is just about to bloom.
And while we were eating some very fine scones on the deck at the back of the house, a hairy woodpecker flew onto the tree opposite and started working away on the bark. I’ve mentioned before that the black and white barring and red cap of the European greater spotted woodpecker reminds me of a painting by Mondrian, and this is just as true of this Ontario native. There is something special about a woodpecker, and seeing it in good company, on a warm, sunny day, makes it even better.