birbs D-I-Why Not wild inklings

A place for owls

Great Horned Owl. Painted with oak galls, acorns, and saffron (locally-grown).
When I was a kid, my favourite book was “Granny’s Gang” by Katherine McKeever. It’s the story of Kay and Larry’s life with various injured/orphaned/recovering owls. (The titular “Granny” is a spectacled owl.)

I grew up in the ‘burbs of North York. First in a townhouse, then a house for awhile, then a townhouse again. There were a few wild pockets scattered around the cul-de-sacs and train tracks. And I was lucky to have them. But if there were owls around, I never encountered them.

Owls lived in dreams and imagination, not my neighborhood.

Forty years later, I live in a different habitat. Here, owl song signals the start of winter. I’ll dash outside some night in December. Taking out an overripe compost bucket, or doing a final chicken check. And though I’m probably not wearing a coat, I’ll take a moment to look up at… 🎶hoo-h’HOO-hoo-hoo🎶 …the stars.

The call interrupting my thoughts announces the magic is happening again — the owls are picking their partners and territories. Baby owls are just around the corner… Literally.

For some, winter is a time of rest. For others, deep struggle and hard won survival. For the great horned owl, it’s baby-making time. They are very early nesters, and in Ontario, by January-February, proceedings are well underway.

For now, the owls can call this place home. Humans too. Though both our perches here are fragile.

Whatever else we do here, our life’s work is the protection and encouragement of the little forest where we live. To try and pass a healthy woods forward for the humans and critters we hope come after us. Full of big trees and baby owls, and all the critters we see and hear — and all the ones we don’t.
🦉📖: In my 30s, I learnt Kay’s centre is in Vineland Station, Ontario. It still operates today, as The Owl Foundation. It was a dizzying discovery, like learning The Jungle Book was real and you could get to it by TTC. I was incredibly fortunate to meet and thank Kay before she passed. Secondhand copies of Granny’s Gang can still be found, renamed “A Place For Owls”.



Happy Solstice

A commission for the wildly wonderful Jess to end off the year. 💜

We take our big break in the winter. Our kerchief and our cap, the woodstove, the furry animals, and the snowy woods have all been waiting patiently for us. Our invisible internal batteries — brains, hearts, and spirits — are blinking red. Time now to rest and recharge.

Happy Winter Solstice everyone! ❄️ Have a wonderful holiday season and see you in the new year 💙

~Kate & Neil

birbs D-I-Why Not homeMADE

3D Cornstarch

Compost-aments! 🐦♻️

Ornaments made with just cornstarch, baking soda, water, and… a 3D printer? 😉

🐦🔧: Everyone and their brother sent me Woodlark‘s cornstarch ornaments — and I’m glad they did! 😂 Beautiful DIY ornaments made from the pantry?? Count me in! But instead of making a star garland, I fancied bird ornaments. Only trouble is I didn’t actually have bird-shaped cutters…


🐦🧠: I like to say Maker’s Dozen’s favourite place to work are the places where art+tech+nature intersect. There’s nothing I like more than smooshing different parts of my brain together… Sooo let’s do this!

🐦📝: I started by drawing a few bird silhouettes in Affinity Designer*, imported them as SVGs to Tinkercad, did some tinkering and extruding to make them 3D cutters, then exported them as STLs for my Prusa to slice, dice, and print. Perfect! Time to make some cornstarch birds!

🐦👩‍💻: Bonus — My office is far from the woodstove, but the dehydrator lives in here, and running it makes the room nice and toasty. So instead of baking the cut ornament shapes in the oven, I dried them in the dehydrator. Whipping up a nice batch of ornaments, while also keeping your computing fingers good and toasty — win-win!

🛒📏: I love working with raw materials that are solid enough to be real, but ephemeral enough to go back to the earth when their time is through. And to let my brain cross-pollinate between what can be computed, grown, baked or built. It makes sense the lines between all these endeavours are more porous than they first appear. After all — as maker Felix Schelhasse once so beautifully put it — the kitchen is actually just a workshop for groceries.

Have a good one folks!

*I left Adobe in favour of Affinity a few years ago. Subscription model software is often unnecessary, frequently insidious, and rarely in the customer’s best interests. Fortunately solid alternatives are still out there, if you look for them. 👍

birbs homeMADE products

Birb’s Eye View

🐦✏️: This is a little winter wren that is actually not a winter wren but instead is a Carolina wren. Because I got aaaaaallll the way through drawing a winter wren and then read that most winter wrens move out of Ontario for winter. 🤦‍♀️

🍄❄️: (In my defence, I ran into a winter wren in the woods here just a few weeks ago. Though I guess a few weeks ago the woods were also full of oyster mushrooms and not snow.)

🐦🔁🐦: Fortunately I was just a brighter belly and an eye stripe away from a Carolina wren — who *does* overwinter in Ontario. And who is also super adorable, and is also a sometime resident of our woods.

🖨️❔: This artwork is intended to be printed up as this year’s Maker’s Dozen holiday card. Though I’m having trouble finding a local printer with recycled (or FSC at minimum) cardstock. It’s really put a WRENch in my plans. Any recommendations in the Quinte West area welcome! 👍

Hope you’re having a great week folks!❄️🐦🌲

🙌🏳️‍🌈: And thanks to the incomparable @wellpreservedcreative for reminding me to quit playing colour wheel roulette and just look at colour theory when I’m stumped. (*Rogue colour choices remain my own.)


amphibians birbs

The Night Shift

Owls and salamanders 🦎🦉🍂
🕯️🍂: A little before midnight last night, I went for a short candlelit walk. There’s always a lot to do this time of year, before the cold and icy thrall of winter. But right now we’re perched on that point between light and dark and warm and cool, and I try to make moments to go notice it.

🦎🚪: When I got back to our front door, I found a little friend sat on the door mat. A blue-spotted salamander. As perfect as it could be. A nocturnal critter that enjoys the damp and dark, its hunt was just starting up as we wound down for rest.

👶🐈❓: When I crouched down to look at this blue beauty, I noticed a call repeating in the night air. A bit like a child, a bit like a cat — a Great Horned Owl. In the autumn, their calls become more prominent and frequent. Now is the owls’ time to court and set territories, before they make their winter babies.

🌜: Life doesn’t end at nightfall or pause for the cold or wet. The lead roles are taken over by a new cast, but the story — the story never stops.
Have a great day slash night slash day folks! 💙
👣📝: I am only holding the salamander to move it away from the front door where we come and go and come and go — aka a High Squish Zone. I popped them into a nearby pile of logs and we both went on our way. 👍



The nest of the Thunder Chicken

Ruffed grouse nest!!

My love of the “Thunder Chicken” runs deep. So I was ecstatic when we came across this ruffed grouse nest at the base of a tree.

Neil and I were walking the woods when a grouse flushed from the brush beside us. That’s not so unusual here, but she was calling as she flew away, which is a bit unusual. Given the time of year, we had a quick look for a nest — and found one! I snapped this pic and we skedaddled out of there, to leave her in peace.

Ruffed grouse nest in hollows on the ground. Like this one, they’re often concealed at the base of a tree, or next to a log. The birds are incredibly well camouflaged in dappled deciduous woods. I now know exactly where this nest is, with mama sitting on the ground, and I still find her tricky to see.

Only 4 eggs were visible when we found the nest, though the hen may lay as many as a dozen or so eggs in total. Spot the feathers she’s added to the nest! In the photo below you can see what the nest looked like four days later — if you didn’t know the eggs were there…

This nest is close to a path we have to use. I’ve taken these two photos while mama hen was off the nest, but I know my attention is not helpful to her or her future babies. For the next month while she incubates and the babies hatch, we’ll dial down our frequency on that trail and pass by as quickly and respectfully as possible.

I love love love that the woods has its secrets. There’s no bulletin board listing who is nesting today. For every nest I see, there are probably a dozen I don’t. Moments like this remind me that even when I’m paying all the attention I have, I’m only glimpsing the tip of the iceberg. Life abounds.



More information on how and where birds nest — among many other fabulous facts — can be found in “The Birder’s Handbook” by Paul R. Erlich, David Dobson, and Darryl Wheye

birbs flora

The red-headed white-bellied Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpecker feasting on sumac…or the bugs therein?

The red-bellied woodpecker. I’m not ragging on the folks who assigned woodpeckers their common names, but… okay, maybe a little. Because if I was going to describe this woodpecker to someone, “look for its red belly” would be way way way down the list.

“Neil! Come see this red-bellied woodpecker! No don’t look for a bird with a red belly. The belly looks bright white from here. I mean I can get you a close up reference photo where you can see it’s actually a bit ruddy… Ahhhh there’s no time for this, it’s that bird with the BRIGHT RED HEAD.”

It’s the same deal with the yellow-bellied sapsucker, with its brilliant red cap and (in males) equally bright red throat. And belly that if you are about five feet away from one, and happen to have a pantone deck with you, you *might* describe as the colour of watery butter.

I said I’m not actually ragging on those woodpecker namers though, and I do mean it. Because when you see the bird who scored the name “red-headed woodpecker” you can’t help but think — alright, fair enough.

Pic by The Lilac Breasted Roller (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia



Eastern Red Cedar Waxwings

A good omen yesterday: a little flock of cedar waxwings flew into our cedars to feast on the berries.

I could flap my gums and wax eloquent about these softly beautiful birds, but first let’s look at the tree they are feasting on: Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana).

I love this tree. It’s a scrubby scrappy tree. One of the first species to grow back in damaged or eroded land. It is also a far and away favourite of the critters that visit here. The bright blue “berries” — the female cones — are recklessly munched by red squirrels and most other passersby. I think it is not considered a pretty tree, but I don’t consider that consideration well considered.

The blue cones of these junipers take three years to mature – year one they flower, year two the cone turns green, and year three they are sky-blue and ready for harvest. The Eastern Red Cedar berry is listed in the Slow Food Foundation’s “Ark of Taste”: a project to recognize and draw attention to “small-scale quality productions that belong to the cultures, history and traditions of the entire planet.”

“Eastern red cedar berries are related to common juniper berries but are superior in flavor. They are mild without the turpentine notes and bitterness of common juniper. They are almost sweet, with a woodsy piney flavor.”

~ Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity

Cedar waxwings engage in beak rubbing, dances, and food sharing as displays of courtship, and “[o]lder birds pair preferentially with each other”. As I look over at my mate of 20 plus years, I get it. I may not secrete a red waxy substance from my feather shafts, but between their food sharing and their love of the eastern red cedar, me and the waxwings have a lot in common.


Selected Sources: The Birder’s Handbook by Paul R. Ehrlich et al; The Slow Food Foundation Ark of Taste Project

birbs fauna

A most unusual squirrel

Alright, I thought, I’ve done my walking lap, and my woolly coat and gloves are back on the bench now. I’m down to some pretty threadbare leggings and a hoody. So if I don’t start running soon, this nippy feeling is going to blow right past chilly to points more unpleasant.

And then… a sort of “chirp”. High up a tree, ahead of me on the path, and a little to my right. To my slightly muffled ears, poking out the bottom of my orange toque, it sounded a little like the indignant chirrup of a red squirrel.

Only… slightly not.

I have learned – am learning – to pay more attention to the “slightly nots”. The woods doesn’t post a roster listing who is in attendance today. Moving slow and listening fast are the only reliable ways to find out who is around.

I stopped and scanned the trees for the squirrel I’d made indignant by walking past, or anywhere near, his tree. Only it wasn’t a squirrel. Because as I turned in place, a large bird took off. From a perch high up in an oak, about 5 metres ahead of me, along the trail that follows the crest of the hill. The bird didn’t go far though. But instead took another perch, just as high, only a little closer to me, and a little closer to the hill’s edge.

A pileated woodpecker? It was large, and I’m sure I saw a flash of colour on the head.

But… it didn’t land like a pileated. And it was… squat? Can a woodpecker be squat?

I took a step back, literally and figuratively. I tried to stop expecting to see something, and instead see what was there.

And what was there was… a duck??

I squatted down and took a long hard look way up the tree.

And it was, in fact, a duck.

And not just a duck, but a duck with pizzazz. Some exotic escapee. A resplendent rainbow of duck. Colours splashed akimbo all over its little duck head and squat duck body. A squat duck body currently perched high high up an oak tree. A male duck of some kind I guessed, with his elaborate plumage. He made another chirp. And another.

I hunched down in the dirty leaves, no longer feeling so chilly, and took a minute to absorb this unexpected squirrel-chirping rainbow duck.

Just as I’d decided to move along, and let this dollop of rainbow get on with whatever he was doing, he made another much louder chirrup, and then off THEY flew, singing a new song as they went. Not only the male I had been watching, but also… a female! Who had, apparently, stayed sitting quietly on the original tree the male had started from. It seems I had fallen for the oldest trick in nature’s book — with his fancy outfit and catchy songs, Mr SquirrelRainbowDuck had been distracting me. Holding my attention, while his mate, a few trees over, sat entirely in my blindspot.

Well played Mr. Duck. Well played.

If you are a birder, you have perhaps been shouting “IT’S A WOOD DUCK!” at your screen since I first mentioned our squat rainbow friend. And right you are! Confirmed by BirdNet in real time, which I was using to record their calls, and which showed me an exact photo of the duck I was looking at, along with that wonderful ID phrase: “almost certain”. (If you’d like to hear them for yourself, the calls they made were similar to the second last calls in this list, only more intermittent.)

There is no permanent body of water in our woods. But when the wood ducks flew off, they flew towards the creek that winds along parallel to the nearby road. The creek is out of sight from the path, and not connected to our woods — except as the duck flies.


Have a wonderful week folks! And if you want to guarantee some goodness in your week — I recommend stopping everything to google video of fledging baby wood ducks. I promise you won’t be sorry.



Fee-bee! Fee-bee!

Think I heard my first Eastern Phoebe of the year!

Phoebe painted with wild inks

The chickens and I were outside doing our stretches. I was doing physio for my arm (it is possible I overdid it, using a pickaxe to liberate our icy driveway last month), while the chickens were running around looking for slugs and bugs.

I was enjoying listening to the morning birdsong, when a familiar determined trill popped out from the robin-dominant din. A phoebe!

I wasn’t familiar with phoebes before we moved here. They’re adorable little flycatchers, with forked tail feathers that flick distinctively whenever they’re sat on low perches, waiting to snatch their next bug from the air.

A phoebe has nested on our house at least as long as we’ve lived here, and possibly before that. Phoebes will reuse their nests, after doing some refurbishing, so we leave the nests in place and intact year-to-year, snugged up under the roof’s overhang.

Last year the phoebe that usually nested on the back of our house built a new nest on the front instead — possibly a consequence of something-not-us mutilating their nest beyond repair while the phoebes were away for the winter. (I don’t know for certain it is the same phoebe nesting, or at least the same family line. But given that the oldest known phoebe was 10 years and 4 months old, I guess it’s possible!)

The change in nest neighbourhood was wonderful for us though, as the phoebe’s new nest was by a large window, so we were able to watch all their comings and goings — and fledgings! Bird TV. We’d witnessed part of one fledging in a previous year. We were standing by the bedroom window when a very very tiny phoebe (which are already pretty tiny to start with) landed on the little framed edge of our bedroom window, breathing heavy and looking like this whole flying business was quite new, exciting, and scary. A-dorable.

The other birds don’t appreciate the phoebe’s claiming of the front of our house as much as we do. I usually have a window-mounted feeder on that same large window, but we had to take it down last year. The phoebe was very territorial, and took to “giving the bird” — dramatic maverick-style swooping attacks — to any interloper who tried to pop by for a snack. I decided to remove the temptation, and took that feeder down until the phoebes had moved on.

It is very satisfying and exhilarating though to watch these incredibly agile and nimble little fighter pilot birds in action. Their swoops and banks and high speed catches of bugs from the air are spectacular to watch. I mean, they are catching bugs mid-flight! Last year was particularly enjoyable, as the phoebes were at least reasonably happy to include LDD moths on their menu. We had just ridiculous number of caterpillars (until their collapse) last year, so seeing the phoebe munching away on them was a delicious sight.

Sights – and sounds – of spring continue…