Category Archives: Natural History

Harris Hawks: Hawks of the South



In the US Harris Hawks can be found from Arizona to Texas, but not farther north. They can be found as far south as South America.

It has a long tail and a relatively small head.  Harris’s hawks can live up to 15 or 20 years old. The Harris’s hawk is usually between 18-24 inches in body length and has a wingspan of 3-4 feet yet only weighs from 1&1/2 pounds to 2 & ½ pounds.

Some of the Harris Hawks nest in spring but some females lay a second or even a third clutch whether or not their first breeding attempt fails. As a result, in Arizona eggs have been recorded in each month of the year.  This is possible because they nest in the southwest USA and farther south. This would not be so easy in Manitoba.

Young Harris Hawks sometimes play with each other by chasing insects or jumping on stick in imitation of the prey they capture.

Like most hawks, the female Harris hawks are larger than their male counterparts.  males. Sometimes these hawks practice a behavior known as “back-standing” where several birds stand on top of each other.


Great Horned Owl




At the Arizona- Sonoran Desert Museum I saw a Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus) can close its feet with 500 psi (pounds per square inch). I have seen these before in Manitoba but never this close. This was a treat.

The average human exerts- squeezing as hard as 80-150 psi. However, the story that owls will eat your dogs/cats is an mainly an urban legend because an owl cannot lift more than its own body weight of (2-3 lbs).

These owls are found around North America, and owls are found throughout urban areas. Many people fear they will attack their pet cats.  While we don’t like to say it ‘never’ happens, it certainly doesn’t happen with frequency. Owls will dive at cats, dogs and even people if they have a nest in the area, sometimes misconstrued as a hunting attempt.


The Great Horned Owl is a generalist raptor that captures a very wide range of prey, including reptiles, amphibians, rodents, and birds and can be found throughout the U.S. and even Canada in many different all habitats. Today was the first time I managed to capture a photo of these magnificent birds in flight

These owls are found around North America, and owls are found throughout urban areas. Many people fear they will attack their pet cats.  While no one should  say it ‘never’ happens, it certainly doesn’t happen with frequency. Owls will dive at cats, dogs and even people if they have a nest in the area, sometimes misconstrued as a hunting attempt.


Sonoran Desert Museum Tucson


This is a Great Horned Owl which I saw in Tucson Arizona this winter.

In Arizona this past winter, we went to one of my favorite places in Arizona, the Arizona- Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson Arizona. The word “museum” however is very misleading. You have to put all of your preconceptions about what a museum is on the shelf. This place is very different.  As they say here, “this is a place to turn your idea of museum inside out.”

It is almost entirely outdoors and consists of a 98-acre zoo, aquarium, botanical garden, natural history museum, publisher, and art gallery that was founded in 1952 and is located west of Tucson adjacent to the Saguaro National Park and closely integrated with it. It  features 2 miles of walking paths through a 21 acres of desert landscape. It is a place of wonder. If you want to learn about the Sonoran Desert this is a great place to start as it contains much of the flora and fauna of that special North American desert.

My favorite part of this museum is the Live Raptor display that is held each winter. Here you get to see a variety of desert flying raptors flying in the wide open spaces. The birds are actually free to fly away and sometimes do exactly that. They don’t usually fly away because they know if they show a bit of patience people will place food for them in the surrounding shrubs, cacti and other plants. Why would you leave this place if food in convenient bite-sized chunks will soon be available? This food is place on shrubs close to where the people stand with cameras at the ready.

I have tried a number of times to get photos of raptors in flight and failed each time until this year. This year I was thrilled with my results. I have will show more of my photos in future posts.

The Museum  contains only birds that can be found in the Sonoran Desert.  The birds are completely untethered and without any jesses (leg straps) and mainly even without bracelets. A narrator tells the story of each specie on display that day including their habits, diets, hunting strategies, behaviors, and fun facts that I usually end up forgetting because I get to wrapped up in the raptor display. But that’s me.

The thing that is most surprising about this place is how close the raptors come to us. It turned out today that as far as the raptors were concerned, I was the centre of attention. A number of times they swooped right over my head. I could have touched them were I not such a smart guy (big chicken) who knew better than to touch them in flight. A few times I missed a great shot of a bird because I was too close to photograph it with my zoom lens.

This was a sensational day!

Africa Needs Lions



When we were in Africa 10 years ago (2013) we visited Antelope Park in Zimbabwe. They claim to be Southern Africa’s Most Intriguing Destination. It is home to the world famous ALERT lion. That is a sophisticated program to re-introduce lions into the wild to support the declining lion population.

It is set in more than 3,000 acres of open savannah grassland. In addition to walking with lions it offers elephant rides [of which I don’t approve], canoeing on the tranquil lake or river and a swimming pool.  Of course, it is most famous for allowing people to walk with a lion!  Their motto is very apt, “Where else in the world?’

Their goal is to ethically re-introduce lions into the world by doing that with the offspring of captive bred lions.  ALERT was founded in 2005. It is a non-profit organization dedicated to the facilitation and promotion of sound conservation strategies and management plans for the African lion in consultation with governments and wild life authorities and African communities.

The Trust that was established has a four stage African Lion Rehabilitation and Release into the Wild Program. They want to augment proposals to stop the serious decline in lion populations in Africa.

No human contact is permitted at stage 2 of the program to ensure that the lions that are introduced to the wild have had no human contact. These are the offspring of the lions that had contact with humans. The young of the captive lions has no contact with humans whatsoever.

In every pride of lions, there is a male lion that takes over the group of lions. This is the dominant lion. The humans keep a close eye so they know which is the dominant male.  When food is put out for them it is quickly obvious which is the dominant male. When the dominant male comes to the carcass, as we saw, he flings himself right on top of it to hog the meat. He does not care about any of the other lions even those who have caught the prey. The dominant lion eats first.  There is no sharing if he can help it. He does not subscribe to the maxim ‘sharing is caring.’

While we visited the park, we were taken to a pen where there was an animal carcass, cut into a few pieces, right in front of the fences behind which we stood. We were warned to get ready. The gate at the far end of the pen was opened and 3 male lions—huge male lions—rushed right at us. They were loud and aggressive and fast.  They made deep ominous sounds. Had I been the prey, the sound alone would have killed me.  It was terrifying.  It was extremely exciting. I sure was glad to be behind a strong (I hoped) chain link fence. I would not have wanted to be the prey.  It would have been a very short life. They lunged at the carcass. Two lions each grabbed a small piece of meat, before the dominant male leaped onto the carcass, hogging it for himself.


To photograph the event, I placed my camera on continuous shooting mode. I shot the images through the chain link fence which is basically invisible because I was so close to the fence. It blurred into invisibility.  I fired away as the lions bolted right at me. It was amazingly exciting. Even though I knew the fence was there, it was thrilling.

When we saw the 3 males lions bounding at the carcass the 2 non-dominant males ran as fast as they could because they realized that when the dominant male arrived there would not be any sharing after that. So they tried to get a piece of meat before the king arrived.

Lions in the wild learn to eat fast. They have to eat before competitors come for the carcass. They have to eat before the dominant male if they can. It took these 3 males a few minutes to consume the carcass.


While I was there, I purchased a T-shirt that read, “Africa needs lions.” African lions are disappearing fast. That really is the point. We need lions. We need nature.

This is how humans do it.  they drive animals toward extinction and at the 11th hour, or later, we make heroic efforts at great expense to save them. Now humans are trying to make amends for the havoc they have imposed on lions. It is really too little too late. But I hope it is part of a revaluation of our attitude to nature. We really need a new attitude to nature. And we need it fast before its too late.

Disappearing Lions


This was the only Lion we saw in Africa

I have never seen wildlife as I did on our trip to Africa in 2013. It was spectacular.  But the fact is, numbers were already in serious decline when we were there. While others have been more lucky, we saw only one lion in the wild when we visited and that was in Kruger National Park in South Africa. That of course, is not important, but there are some important issues about lions and other African Wildlife.

Already in 2013, when we were in Africa, the problem with lions was severe. Between 1974 and 2013 when we were in Africa, it had lost 80-90% of its lions! And their number were continuing to decline.

One report published at the end of 2012 estimated that the number of lions in Africa was as low as 32,000. Another estimated the number at 15,000! That was profoundly disturbing since 40 years before that there were an estimated 200,000 lions in Africa.

The UK-based conservation  group LionAid said as few as 645 lions remained in the wild in western and central Africa  It said lions were extinct in 25 African nations and virtually extinct in 10, and it estimated that 15,000 wild lions remained on the continent as a whole, compared with about 200,000 30 years before.

No matter whose figures you believe the numbers are amazingly bad! According to Afua Hirsch writing in The Guardian in 2013,

“The report comes after a series of studies have raised concern about the fate of the African lion. Researchers at Duke University in the US used satellite imagery to conclude that about three-quarters of Africa’s wide open savannah had  disappeared over the last half century , and extrapolated lion populations on to data about their available habitats to estimate that 32,000 lions remained.”

This was one of the fastest declines of mammals in history.  Although their situation was not as dire as that of the tiger, it was clearly headed in the same direction and at breakneck speed.

The overall picture is clear—lions were disappearing fast. Many believed that at current rates unless something was done seriously and fast, the lions would  disappear from the wild in 40 years! As David Lamb pointed out in his book The Africans, in 1982,  “lions are so few in number that most Africans have never seen one.”

One of the problems was that the Chinese were paying big sums for lion bones. It was and is part of their superstitious beliefs that animal parts can give them health benefits.

That of course drives up the price of lions. Then when lions are scarce, the price is driven up so poaching continues with even greater vigor. It is vicious circle, just as it is for rhinos.  Added to that, as tiger bones become nearly impossible to obtain, partly because the Asians have driven them to extinction with their superstitious beliefs, they are now helping drive lions to extinction as well.  The problem is compounded, as it is for rhinos, by the fact that as lion numbers decline sharply, the price rises proportionately just as sharply, thus increasing the profits from poaching.

As a result of these declining numbers serious efforts must be made to protect lions, for the benefit of the tourism industry, but even more importantly so save the lions.

Can we considered ourselves to be civilized if we allow lions to be exterminated? Can we deny that a civilization that acquiesces in such destruction is in sersou decline?


The Gentle perfection of the Holocene


Until now extinction events were all created by natural forces. Over immense periods of time, we have reached our current time which scientists have call the Holocene. As David Attenborough said,


“the Holocene has been one of the most stable periods in our planet’s history. For 10,000 years the average temperature has not wavered by more than 1ºC. And for this time the great diversity of life on this planet has been attuned to this stability. Phytoplankton in the ocean and forests at the surface have helped achieve this stability by locking away carbon. Great herds have kept the plains fertile by fertilizing the soils. Mangroves and coral reefs along thousands of miles of coasts have supported species that when they mature will range into open waters. A thick belt of jungles around the earth’s equator helps to capture as much of the sun’s energy as possible adding oxygen to the earth’s air currents. And the extent of the ice at the poles has been critical, reflecting sunlight from its white surface cooling the whole earth. The biodiversity of the Holocene helped to bring stability. The entire world settled into a gentle reliable rhythm—the seasons. On the tropical plains the dry and rainy seasons would switch every year like clockwork. In Asia winds ensured the monsoons would be created on cue. In the north the temperatures would lift in March and remain high until they would sink bringing autumn. The Holocene was our Garden of Eden. It was so reliable that it gave our own species a unique opportunity. We invented farming. We learned to exploit the seasons to produce food crops. The history of all human civilization followed, each generation able to develop and progress only because the living world could be relied upon  to deliver us the conditions we needed. The pace of evolution was unlike anything to be found in the fossil record.”

At least until now.  This worked astonishingly well for millennia and humans were the prime beneficiaries of this stability.  Like all other creatures we evolved along with the system. Sadly, this did not last.

As Attenborough said,

Our intelligence changed the way in which we evolved. In the past animals had to develop some physical ability to evolve. With us, an idea could do that. And the idea could be passed from one generation to the next. We were transforming what a species could achieve.”


Attenborough thinks that he grew up at exactly the right time.  I grew up more or less the same time. I started a little later than he did.  They were halcyon times. Thanks to air travel which emerged during his life time he was one of the first to travel around the world to see exactly how life could evolve thanks to the gentle conditions brought about by the Holocene epoch. I too have been lucky to travel around the world on a short but glorious sabbatical. He and I have been lucky.

It is now beginning to become clear that these halcyon times are in danger.  And the cause is, again, us. Our activities are threatening this gentle time. There is still time for us to change course, though a lot of damage is already baked in. The worst could be avoided, but it will require a brand-new attitude to nature. Or perhaps an old attitude to nature which more of us need to adopt. I intend to blog about that.  But the key is changing our current attitude to nature which is leading us towards serious dangers.

What do water lilies have to do with this? Everything.


Visible Changes




There is no doubt about it, the Grand Canyon is grand. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth. I is also fascinating because it makes long history visible before your eyes. We did not visit it this  year when we were in Arizona, but we have visited it many times. Some places brag about being worth the trip even though the claims are dubious. The Grand Canyon has a right to brag.

You can see some of the history of such astounding changes in places like the Grand Canyon of Arizona. The geological history of the American Southwest revealed there makes visible what has happened in the last 1.7 billion or so years. That is long before there was any human life on the planet.

Each layer of rock is displayed in different colours. It may be the best record of the earth’s formation anywhere in the world. Almost 2 billion years of history are recorded there although the most dramatic changes occurred recently about 5-6 million years ago when the mighty Colorado River began to carve its astonishing path through the canyon walls. Even that  relatively recent history, includes no history of human life, because there was none.

The fossils found in each layer tell the story of the development of life on earth. The Vishnu Schist which is one of the oldest layers, near the bottom of the canyon, was formed when the first life on the planet, bacteria like creatures and algae first emerged.

Many of the other layers were created by billions of small marine animals, when this area was submerged by ocean. Their shells eventually accumulated to such an extent over hundreds of millions of years that they built up into thick layers of limestone that we can see today from the top of the canyon, looking a mile down. I am always amazed to think that a sea covered this incredible land.



As far as plant life goes, since I self-identify as a flower guy, they have been around for at least a 125 million years or so.  During that time, they evolved astonishingly from tiny barely visible flowers to glorious huge dahlias, from nearly inconspicuous grasses to majestic Redwood trees. All of those are flowering plants!

Life really is grand.  We must learn to appreciate all life. Not just human life. That is part of what I call a new attitude to nature.


A Flower Child arrives in Heaven




When I was a young lad going to University, it was the time of hippies and flower children. I always considered myself as on the fringes of this group. The term we liked to refer to ourselves was “freaks.”  But I always liked the expression “flower children.”  It called to mind these crazy kids at the Kent State  University Vietnam War Protest, and other places, who stood in front of the national guard members that were pointing their rifles at them and they smiled at the guards and placed flowers in the barrels of the gun.  How crazy is that?   Much to my surprise I actually became a flower child of sorts many years later when as an adult of sorts I became interested in wildflowers. I remember my mother was amazed. How could this happen?  Well, my answer to her was, “How could it not happen?” What is there not to like about wildflowers?

It was a very windy day, so I gave up on trying to freeze images of flowering blowing in the breeze.

One afternoon this winter in Arizona Christiane and I went for a jaunt on Red Mountain Road and Saguaro Lake and then headed south to complete a loop to Busch Highway and then Usery Pass Road.  We saw many wildflowers along the way. But we were really shocked at Usery Pass Road  where there was a long line of cars parked beside the road. What was happening we wondered? It was the wildflower children going crazy photographing flowers. My sport has been turned over to the rabble! And there was good reason for that. The flowers were outstanding.


There was a traffic jam of sorts in the countryside where we saw these wild flowers. Everyone, it seemed wanted to see these gems. Who can blame them?


Super Bloom



Everyone in Arizona this year, as in many other places in the southern USA, complained a lot about the bad weather. I admit it—I was one of them.  Everyone complained. Some told me it was the worst winter in 40 years.  It was awful. But it was also great!


From the perspective of a wildflower guy—like me—it was fantastic. Conditions were great.  I learned from Ranger B an interpreter at the Maricopa Parks where we often attended his talks, that the ideal conditions for wildflower growth were a wet autumn followed by consistent occasional rain from January to March. This is exactly what happened this past year. He said it happened about once every 11 years. Well it happened this year. Life is good.


I had been hoping to experience one of those years ever since I heard about it.  Ranger B says it was fantastic to see. He was right.


The result of these ideal conditions is called by local “a Super Bloom.”  And that was what we experienced this year. Now I say it was the best weather ever in Arizona.  Though, I admit, I also complained about it. Some of us are never happy and are never satisfied.



Manitoba’s Cactuses



In June 2016 I went on one of my most spectacular botany trips ever. That is saying a lot since I have on some outstanding trips. This was truly one of the best.

Normally I am a bog guy. I love bogs. I love the orchids and other plants that inhabit our wetlands. Most of my flower hunting has been in these wetlands.  Today I felt a bit like a faithless lover because I wandered a near desert in search of cacti. I have come to love cacti as much as orchids. Both are pretty close to divine.


I love deserts. I just never thought I would experience one in Manitoba. Actually, I did not experience one that day. It is not really a desert but it is as close as we get in Manitoba. Spruce Woods gets about twice the amount that is the limit for what is considered a desert. The annual moisture received there is 300-500 millimetres per year-nearly twice the amount received in a true desert region. This rainfall enables plants to colonize the sand dunes, hiding most of the sand. In fact as I walked along the trail I was struck by the great variety of vegetation. For a plant guy like me that was fantastic.


Of the original 6,500 square kilometres of delta sand, only four square kilometres remain open today. The balance is now covered with vegetation that is gradually covering the sands. Most of the sands are now covered with a rich variety of plants and wildlife. The Spirit Sands had their origin more than 15,000 years ago when the ancestral Assiniboine River, was much larger than it is today and it created a huge delta as it carried glacial meltwaters into ancient Lake Agassiz.

The origins of the Spruce Woods require one to consider the massive continental ice sheets that covered Manitoba and much of the northern part of North America.  About 20,000 years ago, all of Manitoba was covered by an enormous ice sheet that in many places was up to 2 km. deep.  There was an awful lot of water locked up in that  ice.

When that fantastic ice sheet started to melt, a wide melt stream flowed into the recently created Lake Agassiz.  It was the largest lake the world has ever seen! As the water flowed in it dropped silt, sand, and gravel into many parts of Manitoba including a pathway that was centred roughly on what is now the Assinboine River.  This created a huge river valley.

The sand deposits thus created were vast and deep. In places they were up to 200 feet deep and covered approximately 6,500 square km. These deposits spread out in a fan shape that reached as far as Portage la Prairie. Winds created heaps of sand that we call dunes. Large dunes were built up in this area. Those dunes are still active today.

When the great continental ice sheets finally melted away, about 12,000 years ago, the Assinboine River was a mighty river, about 1.5 km wide. The modern descendant is a puny shadow of that.  The river drained into huge Lake Agassiz just south of present day Brandon Manitoba. As the glacier continued to retreat northwards Lake Agassiz drained south—opposite of today. The massive ice sheets blocked northward flow. This south flow of the river exposed massive sand from the river delta.


To the aboriginal people the Spirit Sands were a spiritual place close to the Great Spirit or Kiche Manitou. The present name—Spirit Sands acknowledges the religious importance of the dunes to indigenous people.

Today Spirit Sands is a fragile sand dune about 4 km2.  The rest of what is left is covered with vegetation. The dunes are moved along the prevailing northwesterly winds and like so many dunes, cover anything that stands in their way.


Cactuses or cacti  are magnificent. I have spent  a few winters now in Arizona looking at cacti and have come to love them nearly as much as orchids, as heretical as that might sound.  Our Manitoba cacti are small low plants but the flowers are extraordinary and can hold their heads up high to any Arizona cacti.  And they love sandy conditions.

Many people are surprised to learn that cacti can be found in Canada. After all, are cacti not a plant of the southwestern deserts? Yes and no. Certainly they can be found in the southwest of the US and are in fact famous for that. Yet they can survive in the north as well.

There are actually 4 species of cacti native to Canada. These are Escobaria vivipara, Opuntia fragilis, O. polyacanthaand O. humifusa. None of these species are found farther north than their locations in Canada.

There is another species of cactus in Manitoba that I have not seen yet. That is prickly pear and it can be found from BC to Whiteshell Provincial Park in Manitoba. There are as well a few sites in northwestern Ontario. I have seen this cactus in Manitoba but not when it was in bloom. A nature group of which I am a part, Native Orchid Conservation Inc. went to see it but I had to miss that field trip. Sometimes life sucks.  Next year for sure!