Sunday, January 22, 2017

In My Own Backyard

25 years ago my husband and I bravely ventured out from Richmond BC to his uncle’s newly-acquired cabin. 50 miles in the bush of Golden, BC, the ‘hunter’s cabin’ was aptly nicknamed ‘The Ozone' as it was so far out and away from life as we knew it. The only running water we had was from a hand well pump in the kitchen sink as well as a big one outside. We are not hunters but were keen for an adventure and with only a dog-eared, crease-worn aerial map typically used for logging as a guide, getting there as an adventure in itself. My husband’s uncle and aunt had regaled us with stories of the wildlife in the area so I was (naively) excited at the prospect of seeing animals so different from home.

We found the beyond-rustic cabin and once we side-stepped the fresh grizzly scat and removed the bear-mat from the front door we settled in for a nail-biting stay. A bear mat is a piece of plywood riddled with up-turned nails to deter the most toughest of bears from entering the cabin for a snack. Uh oh. We were in remote back country, the furthest out I had ever been, I was immediately aware of ‘whose’ territory we were in. We kept ourselves busy by mowing over-grown grass (as a favour), and chopping wood. I suspect we were given these tasks to keep us from worrying about the resident grizzly and the wolves that would later circle the cabin as we slept up in the ‘watch’ (yes, I actually saw wolves).

Serene nature walks in the woods nor sunbathing with headphones were NOT on the agenda - mosquitoes weren’t the only thing that could sneak up on you – we had to keep our wits about us. But despite my grizzly-bear-frazzled-nerves I found great joy in watching the numerous wild birds not typically found along Coastal BC where we were from.

I grew up in the City of Richmond, BC surrounded by farms, bogs, marshes and ocean. Richmond is actually on Lulu Island and ‘back in the day’ the dyke-surrounded island was a huge farming community. If you go to the outer-est outskirts of the city and look between the shopping malls, you will see hints of farm-life the island was once known for.

Local birds such as Mallard Ducks, Canada Geese, herons, cranes and Stellar’s Jays, along with the wild pheasants that roamed the fields near my house, were what piqued my amateur bird-watching ways when I was a kid. Those feathered friends comprised the extent of my wildlife experience.

So years later when I found myself 50 miles in the bush worrying about grizzlies and wolves, the last thing I expected to find – yet much, MUCH to my delight – were hummingbirds.

Up at 'The Ozone' the rich and pure air and soil makes everything bigger - the chipmunks, the wild-growing rhubarb we found in the old horse corral and especially the bugs! But I soon realized that what I thought were huge flies overheard were, in fact, hummingbirds. I couldn’t believe my luck! To this city girl hummingbirds were a mystical, rarely-seen magical creature! I was hypnotized by how they buzzed, twittered, dove and spun all day long. We didn’t have a hummingbird feeder to attract them - all the summer wildflowers were what kept them busy.

I knew our stay at the old cabin would be forever memorable, but it would be the hummingbirds who would always be at the forefront of my memories.

Fast forward a few years and we have moved from Richmond to Victoria, BC and have expanded our world with two little boys to keep us busy. The hummingbirds I once saw were not forgotten but I had more important things to worry about – my own two hungry little birdies. I still considered the tiny birds rare and knew I would only ever seen them again at some magical place like 'The Ozone.'

One day right around Christmas I was cuddling my then-7-month old in the rocking chair next to our patio door. We had a little garden with shrubs and trees in patio-size pots and we had decorated some of the smaller trees with outdoor lights. It had snowed so even in the day when the lights were off our little yard was bright with the reflection of the snow. Just as I felt the weight of slumber overtake my little baby boy, and I started to nod off myself, a movement just outside caught my attention and I was instantly awake.

Because there, investigating a bright red Christmas light bulb on the tree just outside the patio door, was a hummingbird. His red throat shimmered and rippled with every movement as he tried to ‘drink’ from the bulb.

I couldn’t breathe – I dared not move (despite the sleeping baby in my arms). WE ACTUALLY HAVE HUMMINGBIRDS IN VICTORIA? I wanted to scream – but again, the baby.

WOW! The elusive little birdie – or so I had thought was elusive – was right there, in my own backyard. I wasn’t anywhere remote – we had no grizzlies or moose. The wildlife we had were deer and cougar commonly seen near my older son’s elementary school, despite us being 5 – 10 minutes away from huge shopping malls and highways. We had Mallard Ducks, Bald Eagles, and cranes - and of course Canadian Geese.

But what was the little bird doing here? Was I seeing things? Was motherhood exhaustion getting the better of me?

Or had they literally been in my backyard all this time but I just didn’t know it?

Although I was extremely intrigued by the sighting, I didn’t have time to worry about the little dears. But as I saw them more and more over the years, and when time would permit, I’d occasionally do a bit of research about them. Although typically a migrating bird, their numbers have increased along the West Coast, especially on Vancouver Island, over the the last fifteen years – which was right about the time I was rocking my youngest son to sleep when I first saw one on the Coast. As for all those years ago in the interior? Well I suspect we happened to be in the right place at the right time – in their migratory path with all the summer wildflowers in bloom and with no grizzlies chasing them (although I think they are too fast for a grizzly).

Fast FAST forward to now. My kids are older and the amount of time at my disposal to notice things like hummingbirds has changed. Although I’m still busy working full-time while trying to referee/clean/maintain my house, I DO have time to sit at my kitchen table and write – and watch the hummingbirds. Years ago we hung a hummingbird feeder (a gift from my youngest ‘rocking chair son’) just outside the kitchen window beside where I write. The little birdies' numbers have grown and although they can be a distraction from my writing, they are a perfect one, at that. They are much tamer than the ones I saw in the interior years ago – they swoop and hover as I re-hang their freshly filled feeder. I have come to know their chatter and chirps of defense and warning as they wait then dive in before I barely step away. I can hear them as I sit at the kitchen table and when I'm washing dishes - they are never too far away.

The once-thought elusive little bird who is for now, as it seems, a permanent fixture in my life have been here for good reason - they make me slow down and stop even if only for the few seconds they hover at the feeder. And now, thanks (but not THANKS) to global warming and who-knows-what-else, it seems as though they are here to stay - and I didn't have to go somewhere remote to see them.

I know our mild weather makes their year-round existence easier - winters are hard up in the backwoods of Golden BC - and the abundance of flowers Victorians are proud to grow makes where I live more attractive to them. It's a perfect place for a hummingbird, I'd say, and even more perfect that they are right in my own backyard.

Research is always being done on the busy little birds - to find out more about them visit the Canadian Wildlife Federation here and as well at the Rocky Point Bird Observatory - visit here.

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