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And walks and crawls and swims all around us

Time might well be nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once. The arrival of Newfoundland & Labrador’s spring sparks a sprint for many wild plants and animals facing a short summer.

Further south in Atlantic Canada, life unfolds and retracts more gradually with the seasons. Following these changes can be interesting and fun. Anyone can do it!

In the early 1970s, fresh with a graduate degree from Acadia, I made several life decisions that have stood the test of time. The first was to use the education. The choice came down to “make money or make a difference”. I gave a flourishing business away to a friend in order to become a biologist. Acquiring a 35mm camera enabled me to start taking wildlife pictures to illustrate public talks. A date book became my way of keeping tabs on nature.

A gradual accumulation of observations, over the course of 40 years, has proven to be informative and intriguing. It depicts environmental variables and documents shifts in timing that could be associated with climate change.

Recording natural events by season, day and year, over many years, is a “what happens when” account that has refined my understanding of natural history and its processes.

My date book is a “Nature Chronology Record” for eastern Nova Scotia, with included notes about other places. At the beginning of the book, under memoranda, I rate each season. For example, the winter of 1982/83 was “very mild, easiest in 10 years, ice rarely in Pomquet Harbour … juncos all winter.” White-tailed deer and overwintering waterfowl fared well. Three years later, the winter of 1985/6 was severe and the white-tail population crashed.

Not unexpectedly, happenings in the harbour, salt marsh, ponds, brook and woodland where I live comprise much of the content of the diary. Goshawks now nest in a maple tree here. The pair arrived in mid-summer, 2007, to build a new nest after a forestry contractor destroyed their old nest and their young while clearcutting a neighbour’s land. The pair are understandably fierce. I avoid upsetting them during the spring and summer breeding season, but hear their noisy youngsters in July and August. On New Year’s day, 2010, one goshawk “cursed” as my wife and I walked near its nest! Combined with similar bald eagle observations, I conclude that some birds of prey defend their nest sites year-round.

Goshawk fledglings.

After years of experience, some diary sections have “watch for” headings. January is “loons on highway month”. Pavement glazed by freezing rain is mistaken for water and crash landings result. With legs located far back on their bodies, loons cannot take flight from ice or solid ground and become stranded. If broken bones are not an issue, they can be released on a large body of open water. There they will execute the running start necessary to become airborne again.

Weather variability also makes migration a gamble for returning birds in the spring, so arrivals are duly noted in the diary. Wet, cold springs are the bane of returning, insect-eating birds like swallows and purple martins. Prolonged foul weather can cause starvation and population die-offs.

Early nesters like eagles and ospreys risk having newly-born young die from hypothermia. Adult bald eagles and ravens nest in February. Nature favours some offspring over parents, perhaps so the next generation has more time to learn survival skills before the harshness of the coming winter prompts migration, hibernation or the spectre of starvation. Ice-covered lakes and harbours offer serious challenges for male eagles trying to supply food to incubating females. My records show a wide range of ice breakup dates for Pomquet Harbour. Nesting eagles are taking a chance on spring weather.

So too are the first frogs heard peeping, snipe winnowing, male woodcock sky dancing, the timing of sea trout migrations upriver and smelt spawning in the brook below the house. My chronology tells that bloodroot blooms here in early May, and young barred owls emerge from their nest box in early June when the dogwoods are in flower. At that time female snapping and painted turtles are beginning to make nests in gravel roadsides, just as the fireflies begin their evening light shows.

Entries in the chronology for early July include the hatching in willet and spotted sandpiper nests. Tern colony and piping plover nests are sometimes flooded by high tides and storm surges. Female ruffed grouse and their broods wander the woods. Ducklings are escorted by hen black ducks from their nests on the forest floor to the pond for practice swimming sessions, then down through the salt marsh to the harbour for the summer.

As ducks paddle downstream, gaspereau and blueback herring swim upstream to spawn. Tadpoles that overwintered under ice transform into green frogs and serenade the setting sun with their banjo-plucking calls.

By mid-July, whimbrels that have nested near Hudson Bay are landing on Saltscapes’ shores. Some spend their late summers roaming the Guysborough barrens for berries and bugs. Dowitchers are migrating through when common elder bushes begin to flower, while red osier dogwood and Indian pear are laden with ripe fruit.

In early August adult blue jays take on a weird look as their heads undergo a feather moult. Four-toed salamander tadpoles transform into lungless adults, leaving their vernal ponds for the forest duff. On August 13, 1998 a hermit thrush brood hatched. The parents’ beautiful singing abruptly stopped.

Shorebird flocks from the north, including black-bellied and semipalmated plovers, greater and lesser yellowlegs arrive in mid-August and become conspicuous on beaches and tidal flats. Robins, swallows and others form flocks inland, while white-tailed deer shed their cinnamon-coloured summer coat and grow brown, hollow, insulating fur for the fall and winter. Fawns lose their spots. (Christmas cards with spotted fawns in snow are pure fiction!)

One exciting entry in my chronology occurred on September 1, 2009. Driving home at 11am, I glanced up a dirt side road. Striding across it, as large as life and less than 30 metres (100 feet) away, was a cougar! After years of seeing tracks, videos and interviewing excited witnesses who seemed sane, I was still awe-struck to see the real thing!

Your Nature Chronology diary can be more than a place to keep observations about wild neighbours around you. A short but important entry on August 29, 1998 reads “Nature joined forces. Alice & Bob married under the walnut trees.” Since then, we both contribute observations. Sharing a love of nature is a fine feeling, indeed.

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