Canada’s shortest season continues to pass and – now that the Littles and I are back from Newfoundland – my husband and I have been getting Boo and Lou back into the rhythm of summer vacation, Ontario style. While we had some rainy, cool weather the first week after we got home, this past week summer’s heat and humidity returned with a vengeance. Meaning it was time for some outdoor adventures, with Family Canoeing topping the list.
This year’s been a funny one, what with all my Bucket List-style road-tripping and the many things the Boy Genius himself has been juggling between work and home. It seemed a bit like canoeing, that intrinsically Canadian pastime which means so much to us both, had fallen by the wayside. In fact, by the end of July, Boo and Lou had only been out ONE TIME with BG. And that was a day that I – thanks to my own (part-time) career – couldn’t even join them.
Now – to frame this story – I guess I should tell you that the Boy Genius and I have our ears open constantly, listening for tips about new and (hopefully) pristine places to go canoeing. Places with clean water. Places to swim. Places with wildlife. The whole “getting-away-from-it-all-and-making-a-campfire-if-we-(damn)-want-to” thing. Places we can go and take the kids, places close enough for a day trip (because it’s hard to plan, pack, and execute a trip that’s any longer in one canoe with a family of four aboard).
In short, we’re on the hunt for great canoe spots within a two-hour drive of urban Ottawa. And no one who knows a place like that is eager to share the location – they’re keeping this information to themselves. So this looking out for places is a tricky job, and it’s one that I admit has fallen one hundred percent on my husband’s (broad) shoulders.
This day I couldn’t go canoeing was a day my husband had selected to venture out and explore one of these hard to come by new places. Because I’m all about sharing information, I’m going to let you in on it (although I will add that – if you have a big dog, drink a lot of beer, are going to the wilderness to play the radio loudly, or just generally are not a “zero trace camping” sort of person – I’d rather you didn’t actually go!).
The place is called Morris Island Conservation Area. Of course (because it was canoeing, and involved being with Daddy, eating chocolate pudding and being wet), our kids loved it. But this outing was a little different. The children returned home with a strange and childishly exciting story to tell.
“Mommy, Mommy! We saw a DRAGON!“ my daughter Lou burbled excitedly.
Now I should say that Little Lou Lou, at nearly four-years-old, still seems very… well, little. The baby of our family, she’s MY “baby” as well, and she still seems so childlike and precious (tiny limbs, baby lisp and all !) in the myriad ways her older brother, the Boo, is so rapidly out-growing. So her story could be a day-dream, or pure babbling, and I listen to it the way parents listen to all the usual nonsense kids say all day long, even managing an enthusiastically non-committal rejoinder.
“Holy jumpin’s!” I say energetically. What I always say when I’m not really listening. Not listening hard, anyhow.
But the story – of a hole in the ground and a loud and menacing hiss! as my husband and kids drew closer – was collaborated both by her older brother AND my (even older) husband. Lou’s story, in short, was factual.
The kids found this all tremendously fascinating and mysterious, of course, and Lou Lou’s “dragon” (which I assumed must have been some sort of snake) remained a frequently recurring subject of conversation around the supper table. And then – this past Sunday – I found myself at Morris Island Conservation Area. And face to face with Lou’s dragon.
It was not a snake.
Now I’m going to back the story up several more paces and tell you that, for one thing, I am still without my Samsung Galaxy camera, a fact I am fairly cheesed off about. As a blogger and Pinterest junkie, being without my “smart camera” – now that I’ve grown so used to having it – feels like I am missing an appendage. I am irked about this product’s apparent software problems (my IT expert of a brother says the issues have been caused by something called the “operating system” :P), especially considering the big bucks I paid for this toy a scant few months back. Right now, my camera’s off at Samsung, via Best Buy (thanks guys!) and I am mightily annoyed. It’s been 2 weeks already. I want my camera back now.
Before the days of my Galaxy, we had (and continue to have, as a – whew! – back-up) a rather good but clunkily LARGE Panasonic camera. Although I loved (and still very much like) this camera, I hated schlepping it places. It is big and heavy, requiring a large-ish removable battery, a charger for said battery, and a cap for its (permanently protruding) lens. In fact, we carry the Panasonic around in a big blue lunch bag singularly devoted to its containment. The Samsung, in contrast, is small enough to slip in my pocket. Yes, I bought a GPS case to keep it safe in, but the whole rig (case included) still fits easily into my purse.
In other words, I was really looking forward to having the new, highly portable, camera for something like, I don’t know say, a Family Canoe Outing. And yet. The day came at last and I found myself without it. I resigned myself to being at leisure in beautiful nature that day, cameraless.
I stuffed my desire to take photographic samples of everything around me deep down inside and resolved to hold it in check for at least this one day out with my kids. After all, Lou already has a bad habit of screaming “Put away that damn camera!!!” at the strangest times, while Boo ducks and covers whenever I turn it in his direction now. So I’m getting the feeling my kids are not entirely mad about my photographic obsession.
Another aside, this again essential to the story. While we were in Newfoundland, my cousin Shell “lent” me a cellphone (with, in fact, no plans on ever asking for its return). She had a set of two such phones, with a plan that allowed them to call each other for free. This was during her mom’s (my aunt’s) illness. Sadly, her mom has passed. The term of the phones was ending now, and – as I am one of the approximately twelve remaining people on the planet with NO cellphone – Shell gave me this phone so we could stay connected during our time together in St. John’s. Shell at her hotel with Phone Number 1. Me and the kids at my brother’s (landline-less!) little house with Phone Number 2.
When Shell flew home, she left Phone Number 2 with us. Without a charger and with its calling plan expiring any minute, but I was free to claim this phone, somehow, if I so chose. Or recycle it. Shell herself bought a new iPhone 5 at the Avalon Mall the day before heading back to Iqaluit. And, for my part, I completely forgot about the phone.
By the time we returned from Newfoundland, I found the (now utterly dead) phone still stuffed in the pocket of one of my bags. Soon it became Lou Lou’s favourite toy, and everyone in Ottawa was treated to the spectacle of my daughter – who shows her girly side with an addiction to purses, shoes, and cellphones – yammering away on it as we made our way around the grocery store.
After a while, Lou asked me why her phone was not working.
“The battery’s dead,” I answered simply. I decided to focus on the battery as it is, at least, something Lou can sort of understand (more so than cellphone carriers, wi-fi signals, and monthly billing anyhow!).
As we were in the grocery store line-up at the moment of this philosophical discussion, Lou retorted by simply holding out a package of Duracell double A’s.
“Put more,” she replied. See Mom, easy!
Somehow I got her home without buying yet more AA batteries (we have lots already). Later, I conversationally mentioned our daughter’s wit and determination to having a real working phone! to her father.
“Show me the phone” my electrical engineer of a man replied. He disappeared into the study, returning with a small black bag.
“This is a universal charger,” my husband explained. He took the battery out of Lou’s LG “play” phone and promptly charged it.
Soon Lou has a really, working LG flip phone, with a Fido homescreen that reads “Unregistered SIM” across the bottom. She can’t make any calls, but she does have her own camera now. Suddenly my daughter is an amateur photographer, happily snapping away. Even her big brother wants to have a turn with this terrific new plaything.
Lou takes her phone everywhere. She even slips it into the front pocket of her little backpack on the day of our Family Canoe Outing. And so – after a good hour or so of peaceful relative boredom, seasoned with a (strong) temptation to catalogue the somehow amazing variety of flora at this new location – I, Mumma, find it.
Soon, I am snapping away on my cousin’s ex-flip-phone camera, deleting excess blurry shots of the grocery store (there are an irritatingly large number of these) as I go. I photograph the small weeds and wildflowers growing all around me – selfheal (love these!), evening primrose, and pearly everlasting (ooh, that’s new!) among them. I photograph the large spider lurking in the rocks at the water’s edge. I photograph our children, “swimming” (in life jackets) along a nylon rope my husband has tied between the rocks of our island and an adjacent small spit of rock. They pull themselves along the rope – zipline style – against the current, squealing with delight.
For good measure, I take a photo of my feet.
As I snap, I delete junky photographs that seem to have filled up this small phone’s internal memory. The frequent screen alert “Memory card full – Make space now?” constantly reminds me that little device is nearly maxed out. Soon I am totally engrossed and no longer paying attention to what is going on around me. I have found a camera to play with.
“Come quick – and be QUIET!!!” my husband, returning from some discrete business in the bushes, implores us, snapping me out of my stupor. “I found the dragon! Come see!!!” Surprisingly, BG seems pretty serious about this; my husband is really eager for us to see Lou’s dragon! My curiousity is piqued.
As the kids and I scramble to join the Boy Genius at the edge of the mysterious woods, it crosses my mind that BG probably wouldn’t be expecting a snake to keep still that long. I am still clutching the flip phone and think ruefully that – if, indeed, it IS a snake – I am not liable to get much of a picture. The flip phone’s screen is tiny, with the camera’s lens surprisingly low-set in the cover (I’m not used to this yet and keep taking pictures of people’s knees). Also, this little camera has no zoom. Lastly, I doubt the pictures this phone takes are very high-resolution.
As I hurry along now, I return from my camera-induced la-la land and tune into what my husband is saying. The words “wild turkey”, “growling”, and “cave” catch my attention. It sounds like the kids’ dragon is actually a large bird, perhaps wounded. Whatever it is, it’s been there a while. My family’s previous encounter with the beast was a full 43 days ago.
We hop from rock to rock. It’s hilly and rubbly here. Amongst the tall trees, broken rock is interspersed with grasses and low evergreens. The footing is tippy – the terrain is very up-and-down and the surface underfoot is a mixed bag of loose rock, scratchy bracken, and complete voids. There’s no path.
Like walking in water, we scan ahead a few steps for rocks that look stable. I hold Lou’s hand tightly, and stage-manage her hike with a steady stream of instructions; I sound like an air traffic control tower talking a novice pilot in for a crash landing. Boo has already fallen down back here once – about an hour ago – and given his knee a deep cut (that oughta teach him not to run while eating a sandwich!). My husband has run on ahead of us like an excited school boy.
Finally we catch up to the Boy Genius and he “shushes” us. We’ve arrived at the dragon’s lair – a deep pit about ten feet wide, and tumbling downwards a good six feet or so, lined with moss and large boulders. It’s a natural depression in the ground, perhaps the mouth of a cave. And it’s an intimidatingly large one. What’s more, from the mouth of this potential entrance to the underworld emanates an incredibly loud and reverberant HISS.
Even I’m feeling a little reluctant now. The echoing, frighteningly loud hiss pulls me back even as curiousity inches me forward to gaze down into the pit. Working my way around blind-spot birch trees and more poor footing, I let go Lou Lou’s hand as she draws back towards her father. He’s keeping back – not out of fear, he just doesn’t want to scare away the wildlife inside.
Even as I get into the best position practical (under the circumstances) for snapping a photo with this zoom-less, low res camera phone (Damn you, Samsung, I want my toy back!!!), it does cross my mind that – whatever’s down there – it feels threatened. The other-worldly growling that is interspersed with the now steady loud hiss (almost like someone left the gas on) is a clear warning. Wild animals do, sometimes, strike when threatened. Suddenly, I am glad the kids are, instinctively, keeping well away.
Inside the pit are two VERY large birds. They don’t appear wounded, but somehow they do seem somehow, well, vulnerable. The mix of fluffy white feathers with long, smooth black plummage gives them a weird, mutt-like appearance, while indicating to me (a very inexperienced novice birder!) that they are either molting or are chicks. Their heads are greyish, bare. I understand now why my husband called them wild turkeys.
The growling and hissing continue, hiking up a notch whenever I draw, apparently, just a bit too close. The monolithic birds don’t even stir. They stay so motionless that the noise – which is probably bouncing off the walls of their crevice and being amplified somehow – seems to be coming from the passageway to the probable cave beneath rather than from them.
I take a few quick snaps. The best angles I can get inspite of the trees and the threatening growl. I curse, again, the lack of zoom. I desperately wish I was holding my Samsung camera.
Then we get the heck out of there. Partially for peace of mind (we have small children with us, after all), partially to give these birds their privacy back.
My husband and I quickly decide they must be turkey vultures (what else could they be?). Together we’ve seen these birds when we’ve been farther up north (eating road kill, what else?), but never so near Ottawa before. Also, it is unclear to me whether these two in particular are a breeding pair, or two chicks. In any case – even if one actually IS injured – it seems they are doing well on their own. After all, they are still there – 6 weeks later. Neither has died of starvation or thirst. Neither obviously injured in any way. Just that whole mottled “molting” thing.
The next day, I look up the turkey vulture in my Lone Pine field guide Birds of Ontario. Sure enough, they do nest “in a cave crevice or among boulders… no nest material is used.” That definitely fits what we saw (√). “ID info” includes the red head, which is grey in immature birds (√), with the birds being otherwise all black (these were mottled black and white, but the white looked like “chick fluff” that was falling out, so √ again). Size 66 to 81 cm tall, with a wing span of 1.7 to 1.8 metres, so – basically – big birds (√ again!).
More: under “voice” it says “generally silent; occasionally produces a hiss or grunt if threatened” (√). Under “Best Sites” it lists Beamer Point Conservation Area (Grimsby), Bruce Pennisula, Petroglyphs Provincial Park, Frontenac Provincial Park, Grundy Lake Provincial Park, Chutes Provincial Park, and Blue Lake Provincial Park. It does not list Ottawa, although the Ottawa River area is listed as a good place to see some of the other birds in this comprehensive guide (some of them less common ones). So, is what we saw something special?
I’ll leave that as an open question to all you Ontario birders out there for now. Do you agree with my ID? Novel for the area, yes or no? Also, on the topic of wildflowers, although I’m fairly sure about the pearly everlasting I’m still suffering doubts about the selfheal. Will be grateful if any experts out there want to weigh in. Once again, I’ll make excuses for myself – afterall, I am not a native Ontarian (or a professional botanist!). But I’d like to know.
Plus! I found out lots more about these very interesting large “birds of prey” (err, sort of..). Instead of summarizing lots of stuff you can read elsewhere, however, I’ll leave you with some shots from Shell’s camera phone, and close today with an interesting video on the turkey vulture.
Pearly everlasting. Shot taken on my cousin’s flip phone camera.
Nervously taken snap of turkey vulture chicks. Shot taken using my cousin Shell’s flip phone!
“Where Our Feet Have Been” – Mine and Lou’s at Morris Island Conservation Area.
Not bad for a flip phone, huh? Think this shot captures a nice effect with the trees on the water…
And – last but not least – here’s that informative guide to the turkey vulture!