Correspondence

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Later this week I will have sent myself “via airmail” to my home town of Newcastle upon Tyne in northern England. I’ll be there for the opening of Spring Show at The Biscuit Factory Gallery, where a series of my bird images, entitled Correspondence, will be exhibited.

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CORRESPONDENCE: letters sent or received

So many airmail letters, cards, and pressed flower collections passed between my mother and me. We wrote to each other from 1976, when I moved to Canada, until 1997, when she died. I keep many of our letters in a box under the bed.

Letters

I like to re-read them every few years because I see completely different things in them now than when I received them in my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. I guess that’s because I’m now “catching up” with my mother; getting to the same stations on life’s journey that she’d passed through decades ahead of me. Parts that I had skipped over in my youth now grab my attention and recognition in an entirely different way.

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Although no more mail arrives from my mother; and although I no longer stick stamps on letters to her; I like to think the correspondence continues through my artwork. In my images I’m always pointing to things I know she’d have loved. I also like to think it’s the equivalent of a box of letters on the subject of “things that are important” for my children to go through one day in the distant future. At least, I’m fairly confident they will think of me almost every time they see a crow or a raven!

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Raven Correspondence

CORRESPONDENCE: a close similarity, connection, or equivalence:

I like to think of my photographs of birds as portraits, rather than as scientific illustrations. I try to capture a look in the eye or a pose that captures the connection between birds and people. Although they have evolved along an entirely different path from that of the human race, I can’t help but feel, especially after the hours I’ve spent watching crows, that there is much we have in common.

Worrying about our children, furnishing our nests, trying to survive … we are all connected.

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Song Sparrow with Snowdrops

 

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George and Mabel – A Love Story

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They say that crows usually mate for life.  George and Mabel have certainly stuck together through good, and some very bad, times — so, in honour of Valentine’s Day, here is their story.

I wrote about some of their trials and tribulations about a year ago in the blog post George’s Tough Year. This is the next installment of their story.

In spite of babies lost to illness  and a seemingly catastrophic injury, George has kept on keeping on and, with the help of his mate, Mabel, seems to be thriving.

We never did figure out what exactly caused George’s beak to break. Theories have included: crash landing; attack from other birds; and a run in with a rat trap. I don’t think George is going to tell me any time soon. In any case, I hardly think he notices his half-beak any more.

He’s developed his own method of scooping up food, turning his head upside down for a more efficient “shovelling” action.

You would think that other crows would take advantage of George’s disability, but he and Mabel, as a team, are a force to be reckoned with. While George comes down to pick up their breakfast, Mabel stands guard on a higher roof and warns of incoming interlopers.

Mabel on sentry duty.

Mabel looking fierce on sentry duty

Mabel fixes me with a stern gaze, just in case I’m about to cause any problems

George’s great advantage over other crows is that he’s not afraid of me at all. If I’m present, the other crows are too afraid to come and eat, while George regards me as his personal catering manager. If I forget one of his “snacks” he will perch right by my studio and stare meaningfully at me through the window until I get the message.

The Look.

The Look.

In 2015 they had a baby but s/he was terribly afflicted by avian pox and died as soon as the cold weather came. Last summer I watched carefully to see what would happen. They had two babies. One didn’t make it, but the second is hanging in there. Boy/Girl George, as I like to call him/her has a small foot deformity, but has survived a bitterly cold winter, so fingers crossed.

Boy/Girl George

George and Mabel are working incessantly to make sure their offspring thrives. After George has collected the food I put out (and he can cram an amazing amount into his gullet and beak) he flies off to share the bounty with Mabel and the baby. I think George is trying to show Junior the food collecting ropes, but s/he remains skittish about coming too close for now.

Mom and baby

Crow family in silhouette

So this Valentine’s Day, we can celebrate the many kinds of love. From the giddy excitement of first infatuation, to the less dramatic but lifelong kind that George and Mabel enjoy.

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Happy Valentine’s Day from George and Mabel!

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Buckets of Birds

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On the way to the Women’s march on January 21 I saw a crow flying in front of me. She dropped a piece of food she’d been carrying and it fell through the air for a couple of feet before she casually swooped down and caught it. Clever, I thought. Then I watched as she dropped and caught the same object at least four more times before she flew out of my sight. I was so excited. I must write a blog about that, I thought. But I didn’t. Somehow it seemed too trivial in the face of everything else that was going on.

It’s not that I’ve stopped feeling inspired by urban nature — it’s just that every time I get on the computer to post something I get sidetracked by reading world news and commentary, and by the time I’ve done that, the games of a crow seem a bit irrelevant.

Today I’m going to try and pull myself together. I note that some serious political commentators sprinkle their posts with kitten pictures just to break up the general bleakness.

So, my theory is, that posting pictures of crows, other birds, pretty moss and rust etc. is a bit of a public service to the news-battered world.

And beyond the kitten-effect, I’d like to think that nature photos are especially important right now.

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If you happen to catch a glimpse of soul in a crow’s gaze, then I hope it will contribute to your resolve to guard all birds against the coming assault on their habitat. Birds, after all, are one of the “canaries in the mineshaft” for the planet.

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If you find yourself empathizing with a fluffed-up, chilly little hummingbird — I hope that this feeling will extend to refugees and any people who are “different” from you.

A forest fire of bigotry and distrust is starting across the world. A wind of ignorance is fanning the flames, and we are all being choked and disoriented by fake news and alternative facts.

We need to be forming a vast human to chain to chuck buckets and buckets and buckets of reason, compassion, joy and love on this mess before the whole forest catches alight.

So, whatever you need to fill your bucket — keeping informed, watching kitten videos, turning off the news, raising chickens, knitting, locking yourself in a dark room for ten minutes, or getting out and saying hi to some birds — keep that bucket well-filled. I have a feeling we’re going to be busy for some time ahead.

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Just in case you really need some cat content, Edgar always happy to oblige …

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Winter Hummingbird

Anna's hummingbird female

This fluffed up little female Anna’s hummingbird seems to have opted to over-winter in Vancouver. She may be wishing that she’d booked her winter getaway in the fall …but too late now. She’s here for the winter, and I feel committed to help her make it to spring.

I was horrified last week, the day we were rushing to get set up for a winter market, to see that the nectar I’d put out for her had frozen solid overnight. I pictured her tiny little frozen iridescent body somewhere in the snow. But no, she flitted by — so still alive! I had a second chance.

I put a fresh batch of nectar out for her and went off to the market. When I came home the feeder was covered in snow so the hummingbird couldn’t get at the fkk. New crisis management techniques were needed. A quick internet search brought up a number of solutions. The equipment most easily to hand was a trouble light, so I plugged that in close to the feeder to keep things warm enough to prevent freezing. That worked wonderfully for the next 24 hours.

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The next, very snowy, day I came home from the market (luckily Make-It at the PNE is walking distance from home) to take the dog out. I heard a persistent clicking noise by my studio and noticed that (a) the bulb in the trouble light had gone out and (b) the hummingbird was sheltering under the eaves of the studio and looking at me with a touch of exasperated indignation.

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The bulb in the trouble light had burned out and the feeder was covered in snow. I replaced it. The next day it burned out again, so I built a “quick and dirty “shelter to keep the snow and rain off it. It’s been working fine since then. As a back-up, I have another feeder that adheres to the studio window. The heat from the building keeps it from freezing, although it’s been so unseasonably cold in Vancouver this week that it’s still been frozen in the morning.

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I posted my trouble light solution on Facebook and Instagram and got some great additional tips from other people. Here are some of them:

  • Bring the nectar in at night and put it out first thing in the morning. Normally this would be the easiest solution in Vancouver, but this week it’s been so cold that the nectar can freeze during the day. Plus, you might sleep in …
  • Find some old style incandescent Christmas lights and wrap them around the feeder. The heat of the bulbs will keep the nectar from freezing. This sounds great, and a lot prettier than the trouble light, so I’m on the hunt for some old-style fairy lights!
  • Wrap and old sock around the feeder to keep it warm.
  • Tuck some foot or hand warmers (the kind you get in a pack, open and shake and they give off heat for about 8 hours – available in bulk at Costco) in the sock.

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Here’s a photo of the hummingbird taken this morning. It’s getting colder all this week, so I’ll have to keep an eye on the trouble light. Maybe I’ll add the sock and foot warmer as a back-up in case the bulb goes out again.

When I take these extra measures to keep the hummingbird alive, I feel a bit like a kid leaving cookies out for Santa.

That’s partly because hummingbirds in general —and hummingbirds in a Canadian winter in particular — are rather magical.

And partly because the hummingbird brings me presents.

In return for just a little fiddling with trouble lights and extension cords, I get the gift of transcendent beauty. It’s a really good deal for me!

Birth of An Urban Nature Enthusiast

Pardon the rather overwrought title, but it’s true; an elementary school “Nature Collection” assignment changed my life.

It was also, at the age of 7, my first bitter taste of academic failure.

On the face of it, it was a rather fun assignment — go out into nature and make a collection of pods, seed and leaves from a variety of trees.

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The one tiny problem was the complete lack of such trees anywhere near where I lived.

Most of my fellow pupils at Saint Andrew’s school, located in the middle of an English industrial city (Newcastle upon Tyne), probably shared my problem. Some of them may have lived within reach of Exhibition Park or the Town Moor, but I lived down on the Quayside. We had the Tyne river, docks, ancient buildings — but no sycamores, oaks or hazel trees for miles.

The Quayside in more recent years (2010). Our family's flat used to be the area circled in red to the left of the photo.

The Quayside in more recent years (2010). Our family’s flat used to be the area circled in red to the left of the photo. I was much more acquainted with the exact girder pattern of the Tyne Bridge just above my bedroom window than I was with the mysteries of trees.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I loved growing up down there. In spite of the complete lack of any family-oriented facilities (including trees), it was a truly epic place for childhood adventure.

High Level Bridge

The High Level Bridge viewed from a part of the old walls where we liked to play. There are a few small trees growing there now, but it was mostly just weeds back in the 50’s and 60’s.

There were a handful of kids in the neighbourhood — my little brother and I, the two sons of the pub owner, and the two daughters of another bank caretaker.

We were “free range” and felt we owned the city.

The ancient city walls were our forts and houses, and many games were staged in the abandoned graveyard of All Saints Church.

All Saint's Church, Newcastle upon Tyne

All Saints Church had no congregation so it was left to turn into an overgrown adventure playground. Because the church itself was a protected historic building it was never demolished.

It didn’t occur to me for a moment that we were nature-deprived. There were, after all, plentiful weeds on the old World War II bomb-sites with which to create spectacular bouquets.

One of my favourite childhood bouquet ingredients. It’s called fireweed here in Canada, but in the UK it has the more poetic name “Rosebay WIllowherb.”

But the dreaded Nature Collection project was real eye opener. I’d never actually seen the sycamore trees it spoke of, with their clever little helicopter seedpods. I certainly had idea where to go and collect samples. My mum, who didn’t drive and had my little brother to look after, couldn’t really help, other that getting some books out of the library for me.

In the end I just handed in some pictures of the items we were supposed to collect. It felt like a massive failure.

sycamore seed pods

Looking back, I feel some lingering annoyance that we were set an assignment so bound fail. It was a classic curriculum vs real life mismatch.

On the other hand, it was a great gift. I feel as if I’ve been diligently working on that darn assignment ever since.

When I moved to other, greener parts of the world, I pressed all kinds of leaves and flowers in books. Sometimes I composed pictures of with the dried results and sent them to my mum back in Newcastle. I recently came across a few ancient specimens in my massive copy of Wild Flowers of the Pacific Northwest.

Pressed flowers

I still feel a thrill, fifty plus years later, every time I come across any new or particularly beautiful little specimen of leaf, seed, fungus, nest or moss.

Or crow, come to that. We only saw pigeons and gulls down on the Quayside.

Vera the crow

I’m always especially thrilled to see the ways in which nature and the city intersect

I love to see a weed forcing it’s way through asphalt, or human rubbish selected by birds to furnish their nests.

Bushtit nest

I found this fallen and abandoned bushtit nest and “collected” it earlier this year.

Bushtit nest

Detail of the bushtit nest. Construction materials include moss, spider webs (for strength and stretch), leaves, grass and fragments of man-made fibres.

This crow’s nest I found on the ground recently is a great town bird/country bird collaboration – an ingenious mix of twigs, moss, twine, packing fluff and zap straps.

Crow's Nest

Crow's nest detail

So, every piece of moss or rust, every bird I see; every lovely fallen leaf that catches my eye; it’s all being mentally added to the ongoing “Nature Collection” project.

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www.junehunter.com

On another small note, greeting cards, ornaments and my City Crow calendar are now available on my web site.calendar-cover-sq

Winter Birds of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Ornaments by June Hunter

City Crow Christmas cards by June Hunter

Winter Birds of the Pacific Northwest Greeting Cards by June Hunter

 

 

Forest Bathing

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Sometimes a little dip into nature does the trick, but sometimes, nothing short of full woodland immersion is going to work.

Most days my spirits can be revived by a quick dog walk round the block, appreciating the changing leaves, a bit of moss here and there. The crows, of course.

Last week though — I’m not sure it was a touch of flu, too much turkey at Thanksgiving, or watching the second US presidential debate — but I was running on my last cylinder.

Although I felt mostly like sleeping, we went for a walk around Lynn Headwaters Park.

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Because fierce rain and windstorms were predicted, last Wednesday seemed bathed in a golden light. It was a perfect fall day, all the more special for the impending weather doom and gloom.

Also, I hadn’t been in the woods for several weeks due to a series of unfortunate lower leg events. I hadn’t realized how much I missed it.

Three hours felt like the equivalent of a week’s magical vacation.

Coincidentally, ever since then I’ve been seeing the Japanese practice of “Forest Bathing” or “Shinrin-Yoku” popping up on my social media, and even in today’s local paper. If you Google the term “forest bathing” you’ll see that everyone from The Globe and Mail to Oprah is talking about it.

It seems that something we’ve always known intuitively is backed up by science. A walk in the woods is good for your health — physical and mental. No need to work up a sweat either. It’s simply being in the presence of trees that provides the benefit.

So, if you can, get out and find some trees to bathe with right now.

If you can’t fit it into your schedule immediately, I hope you’ll enjoy these photos.

Think of it as just a preview of your own real woodland walk, coming soon.

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Lynn waters

Should you ever doubt the calming effect of a woodland walk, compare Geordie’s before and after pics.

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BEFORE – in the car on the way to the park. Geordie always suffers a bit of car-ride anxiety, worrying perhaps that we’ve changed our mind and are returning him to the shelter in California whence he came.


AFTER: Geordie, blissfully one with nature.

 

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The Crow Calendar is Coming

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You may (or may not) have been wondering where in the blogosphere I’ve gotten to for the last few months.

Well, puppy training is surprisingly time consuming … and then there has been my City Crow Calendar project.

The puppy training and the cat/dog peace treaty are both, by the way, going well.

geordie-and-edgar

But for a while it looked as if there wasn’t going to be a calendar this year.

First, there was the Canada Post dispute over the summer. I was worried that it would linger into to the busy mailing season and I’d have to hand deliver each and every calendar. Time to start Geordie’s sled training!

Happily, the dispute was settled by August. But then I thought maybe I’d left it too late.

Requests and queries started coming in. When will the 2107 calendar be ready? It did sell out by the beginning of December last year, so I guess people were anxious that they might have missed it already.

So in mid-September I finally got into calendar creation mind set.

Narrowing down the 12 images to feature is tough. From the thousands of crow images on my hard drive, it took at least a week to narrow it down to the dozen.

I could have been done then, and have the calendars already printed, but …

I had this lingering thought in my head that I’d like to give people more than just a calendar. I’d like to make it even more of a “crow-promotion” by adding interesting little facts about crows for every month. I also wanted to add some extra photos to help tell the “crow story”. I decided I could do this by using the little bits of vacant real estate on the calendar left by the grid spaces in each month that don’t have dates in them.

It wasn’t too hard to come up with “crow facts” for every month, although it took quite a bit of tweaking and editing to get them concise enough to fit into the little calendar grid boxes. It took a little bit more time to pick out the extra photos.

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I thought I was finally finished last Friday, but then I found that the reason that more sensible people don’t make these cute little additions is that it’s a technical nightmare!

I won’t bore you with the InDesign technical reasons why this is such a fiddle, but suffice to say that I spent hours this week going over it with a fine tooth comb to get the weensy boxes of text and mini photos to align perfectly with the grid part of the calendar.

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Geordie waits patiently while the crazy woman mutters at the computer screen.

Finally I decided that my nitpicking was going beyond the rational, so Geordie and I took the file off to the printer today. It is now, I am happy to report, out of my hands.

I expect it to be back into my hands early next week when it will be available to order online. I’ll be sending out a newsletter when they’re actually available, just in case you’d like to get your hands on one.

UPDATE: The City Crows calendar is now available for order on my website. 

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www.junehunter.com

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