Friday, 8 April 2016

Ducks with Down Coats

Well, that took longer than expected. I guess I don't have as much free time as I thought I did. It snowed today, so I'm posting this anyway - even though the calendar says it's spring, the outside does not.

This time of year we often think most of the birds have headed south, but in fact here in the Great Lakes area we ARE south for a number of different arctic and northern species, particularly waterfowl, gulls and owls. Because I'm a lucky duck and get to do cool (and cold) things at work I spent a lovely, sunny, -20C day surveying for winter waterfowl. In the "how was your day" part of dinner it sparked a conversation with Beans and Bunny on how those thousands of ducks I just counted stay warm floating on ice water.

Our lake does it's best to freeze solid. There are open patches, particularly near the outflows of streams or stormwater outlets, and some areas where it's kind of a slushy ice/water mix. On anywhere that is not frozen solid you will see ducks. LOTS of ducks. Anywhere that is frozen solid you will see ice fishermen, but that's a whole other story.

The ducks are pretty happy in the frigid water. So much so that they are preening, splashing about and diving under for food while for people - well, some of us have our 10 second "polar bear dip" and the rest of us think those guys are crazy.

So why aren't the ducks freezing? Why aren't little duck firemen taking them to warming huts after their swim?

Two reasons.

First, bird feathers are one of the best insulations around. Which is why we steal them and make coats and snuggly duvets. Birds "fluff" themselves up in the winter to amplify this effect - trapping air between the feathers and their bodies which warms up and keeps them toasty. It's like they are constantly wearing a parka at all times. Humans pay hundreds of dollars for Canada Goose jackets, an actual Canada Goose just gets one thanks to nature, only no fur collar. They will stick their heads in their feathers to breath warm air and also tuck their legs in to warm up as well.

File:Daune down feather.jpg
By Yoky (Own work) [GFDL (
or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0
via Wikimedia Commons

Which brings me to the second reason - feet. There are very few muscles in a duck foot - it's all tendons. This means very little circulation is needed to keep them warm. They've also got this really cool (pun slightly intended) system called counter-current heat exchange where the warm blood passes closely by the cold blood during circulation. This allows them to minimize the heat lost through their feet as the arterial blood travelling to the feet gets cooled and can't loose much to the icy water and the venous blood travelling back up gets warmed and doesn't bring the cold back up to the body. This means they actually can have two temperatures at the same time - one for their core and one for their feet - which can actually be close to freezing.

Now I know my feet are cold on a winter night, but this is taking it to the extreme.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The return of Beans and Bunny.

Hi Blog!

Yeah, it's been a while I know. I've missed you too, but absence makes the heart grow fonder right? But now I'm back and we'll pick up just where we left off like old friends with a cup of tea.

Rest assured, we are still outside and still adventuring and still asking questions.

And I'll start writing about it RIGHT NOW.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Tree Sap

OK. So here's the thing - when you write an outdoor blog as a hobby sometimes there's more outdoor happening than blogging and then there is the whole "work" and "life" things that are always there hanging around as well. I do this just for fun, so just like someone puts down a partially knitted sweater for a bit, sometimes I put down the blog for a sec, especially if I'm already writing a lot at work. So I have a number of half-finished posts I had great intentions for but that always seemed to get put on hold or forgotten about. This is the first of those, so while it's a little off-season, it's still a cool thing. Plus you eat syrup on pancakes, which are totally an all year thing. I'm done with excuses now.

Tree Sap!

That's a lot of sap!
Tree sap, properly prepared, is delicious. Well, at least the maple kind is. On a (not-so) recent trip to the Kortright Centre we ate it both straight from the tree (meh) and then boiled down (yum). We learned how the First Nations made syrup - by placing sap in hollowed wooden troughs and adding hot rocks to evaporate the water. We learned how the settlers made it - by boiling it for days in cast iron kettles. And we learned how they do it now - the same boiling method, just much more efficient and indoors. At the first station they showed us a picture of a deer licking a tree - this was one of the first indications to people that there was something worth getting in there! But what comes out is more water and less delicious sugary syrup. So what is that original stuff? We saw all kinds of ways to get the sap out of the tree, but what we didn't learn, and what got asked was how the tree gets the sap in the first place.

Sap getting out
Don't worry, they filter out the bugs first

How are you getting in there sap?
So not surprisingly maple syrup is made from maple sap (sugar, red or black, but usually sugar). In colder climates (like here!) the trees are dormant in the winter and store starch in the trunks and roots where it is converted to sugar that rises in the sap in the spring to feed leaf growth. Specifically, this is called xylem sap. In the sap are water, some plant hormones, minerals and other nutrients that travel from the roots towards the leaves. There are some theories on how it actually gets up there, but it seems like most people agree on cohesion-tension theory, which has it travelling up through xylem cells by the force attraction between the molecules working against gravity - why it can flow up. The other transport is through Phloem, but it does not create a delicious food so we aren't going to discuss it much other than to say that it's job is to transport the nutrient filled sap from storage or production to areas that require it for growth or storage - it flows in multiple directions through living cells and therefore can't be tapped like the initial spring surge of xylem.

How important maple syrup is to Canadians:
The FPAQ (Fédération des producteurs acéricoles du Québec - Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers) has a strategic reserve of maple syrup located in warehouses in small Quebec towns - holding millions of kilograms of maple syrup. If that wasn't crazy enough in August 2012 theives stole millions of dollars worth of syrup from one (a quarter of the supply) - about 20 people have been arrested in the great maple syrup heist and they are making a movie about it.

And to prove this post is still relevant, even though it's no longer spring, here is a pancake from the other day:

Miss Georgina Pancake loves syrup!

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Earth Day

So Earth Day is kind of like Mother's Day. We love our moms and we try to be nice to them every day and they love us back and take care of us and remind us to brush our teeth. The earth is the same, it loves us and provides for us and we love it back and try to be nice to it as best we can on a daily basis. But every once and a while we need to give the earth a card and make it brunch to say "hey, thanks for everything".

So, Earth, thanks for being awesome. Thanks for food and air and sunlight. Thanks for animals and fish and clouds and lakes. I know we haven't always been the best kids, but we love you and we're trying.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Beans' Nature Party

I don't normally do "lifestyle" type posts, but this one is kind of a crossover as Beans chose a nature theme for her 6th birthday party this past weekend, so I thought it might provide some nature themed activities in case anyone wants any. We planned for a nature hike with some bird-friendly activities, a plant pot craft and a chocolate mud puddle cake. The weather was less than cooperative, with snow in the morning and temperatures hovering around 0C for the day, but that didn't stop the determined little group of girls from tromping over to the park to help out the birds, who with the late thaw this year could probably use a little assistance.

As her guests arrived the birthday girl greeted them with her Red-tailed Hawk. She thought up the glove thing herself, which I thought was awesome (also awesome is this nest cam!). When you squish him he even makes the real call.

She then took them on an indoor "nature viewing" in our living room, where Beans and Bunny had set up a number of stuffed animals.

The elusive couch-climbing mountain goat

Penguins and owls, together at last
The couch pond

We then tromped over to the park around the corner, which as it turns out was covered in ice. On the way there we used field journals to record all the signs of spring we saw - words or pictures, depending on ability. Since there weren't many we ended up with a list that was something like "bird nest from last year, old leaves, grass, rocks, mud, puddle, water, melting snow". We also may have stomped in a LOT of puddles.

We brought a bag of black-oil sunflower seeds, which are pretty much the best all-purpose bird seed out there, and a bunch of paper cups and the girls had a great time sprinkling them (flinging them) all over the grassy and treed areas (ok, on the ice too and maybe some in the playground... and along the street back to our house. There are now a lot of seeds in our neighbourhood).

After we had sprinkled to our hearts content we gathered up a whole lot of sticks, grasses, pine needles and assorted other things we thought birds might like to make their nests out of and trucked them back to our yard and made a giant (ok, giant is a relative term here) pile of nesting materials for the birds to choose from. We also added pink, purple and blue yarn in case they need something wuzzy, because it's pretty cold out at night. The added bonus of this is that the kids can look for their coloured yarn in birds nests in the neighbourhood. If you have a backyard tree you can hang the material from the branches or in a net bag, but we don't, so we went with a pile. Beans has promised her friends to report on who comes to take the goodies.

Back inside to warm up decorating plant pots with some bling and some juice, snacks and an impromptu tissue paper/stuffed animal dance party.

And no party is complete without "cake", or in this case a delicious chocolate mud puddle (brownies and pudding).

Despite the weather it was an awesome afternoon, which I think goes to show that kids really don't care what the weather is, they just like being outside. I know Beans and Bunny sure do.

Happy Birthday Beans!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Spring Freshet

Yesterday I wore only a t-shirt under my jacket and there were 11 robins spotted on the walk to school. There are above freezing temperatures forecast for every day this week (we're ignoring the nights, ok?). At the risk of jinxing things, I think it might actually be spring - not calendar spring, on which we had a snowstorm, but actual things melting, birds returning, plants growing outside spring. Heck, Beans and Bunny even went scootering on Sunday - avoiding ice patches is a newly acquired skill.

BUT - if you read our last post you know that we get a lot of snow here. And yes, we still have a lot of snow. There are still giant snowbanks, particularly in parking lots and with the freeze-melt-freeze-melt cycle of the last few weeks, many of them are glacier-like in their consistency.

The beginning

This led to our recent discussion - where does all the snow go? That is a LOT of frozen water to get moving. The simple answer is the lake obviously - they both know that Lake Simcoe is nearby and the water goes there. But we get what we refer to here as the "spring freshet" - which is basically a flood caused by the spring thaw - but it's not like a rainfall flood that happens quickly. It happens over a period of time as snow and ice melt and travel to rivers and the rivers themselves melt. The amount of snow accumulation that winter along with how quickly it melts are both factors in how big a "flood" it will be - that is how high up the water will go in the floodplains (which hopefully don't have any stuff in them). It seemed a good opportunity to talk about river systems, their catchment areas and how all that snow moves through the system and our world turns from snow to slush to mud.

Heading to the sewer

If you will, picture a river system like a tree shape. The trunk touching the ground is where it flows into the large waterbody (for us, Lake Simcoe). Everything from the tips of the tallest branches downward flows into that tree - that's how a watershed looks. Everything off the landscape surrounding that tree until a dividing point (usually a high point of land, the red dashed line below) also flows into that system.

It can be scaled upwards depending on how large you are looking at - for example you could look at everything that flows into the Great Lakes, or everything that flows into Lake Huron, or everything that flows into the Nottawasaga River - each of those is that system's "catchment" - it's water supply. In the case of a lake it probably has multiple systems each with their own catchment flowing into it, and each of those has it's own source of water - ground water, snow melt, rain runoff, etc. It all accumulates and makes it's way down the system. We live in an area that flows into Lake Simcoe, so our watershed looks like this:

So our snowbanks melt, flow via storm sewers and stormwater ponds into our local creek. That creek then takes them down the system to drain into Lake Simcoe, which also happens to be where our drinking water comes from so it means later on we may drink our snowbanks, which is cool (but only cool after treatment obviously, the snowbank is kinda grey right now). 

Mmmm snowbank

But it doesn't end there - Lake Simcoe is a part of the Great Lakes basin - so our water hangs out in the lake for a while and eventually will make it's way through the rest of the system.

So you can see our little lake nestled in between Georgian Bay and Lake Ontario there, a small piece of a large system - and that we are in the Lake Huron Drainage Basin, so our water goes there next. Which is cool because we swim in there a lot, so it's possible that this summer we can swim in the same water that was our snowbanks, which is awesomely cool.

Heading through the system

And moving up another step - the Great Lakes eventually flow out the St. Lawrence and into the Atlantic Ocean where they complete their journey.

Not bad for a lowly grey snowbank. So, Mama... how exactly does the stormwater pond work... ? 

Wednesday, 5 February 2014


We live in the land of lake-effect snow - between two lakes - Georgian Bay (Lake Huron) and Lake Simcoe. This means that when you look at the radar, everywhere else is clear and there's a big green line connecting those two lakes and we are underneath it.

Looking for us? Try the big green blob.

Lake-effect snow: streamers, snow squalls, snow bands, whatever the name - it results in a fair bit of the white stuff. We hear these terms on the radio a lot so it's not surprising that Beans wanted to know what it was and how is it different than regular snow? And why doesn't her uncle have any snow?

Sometimes it's hard to find your toys.

The answer is that it's not different than regular snow. Snow is snow - it's precipitation that falls in a frozen state. Clouds form when water vapour condenses (goes from gas to liquid) and hang out in the atmosphere, then when they get too heavy they fall - and because it's cold it's not as water, it's as tiny ice crystals. It is actually usually so cold in the clouds that most rain actually starts out as snow, even in summer, but melts on its way down! As Bunny learned the other day from her favourite show Wild Kratts, snow isn't just water - there is dirt, bacteria and other random things in there from the atmosphere that help the snow freeze faster and form the crystalline structure, so she's not so sure about catching it on her tongue anymore. A bunch of those ice crystals fuse together and form a snowflake. Sometimes they melt and refreeze and then you get the harder ice balls and not so much the nice fluffy stuff. And sometimes those go sideways in the wind and hit you in the face while you dig out the car.

Pretty little crystalline structures (this one is not my pic)

But overall snow is snow - what is different in lake-effect snow is not the what but the HOW.

Whenever you have a large body of water it has an effect on the local weather. When the atmosphere is cool and the cold winds blow across the lake water, which is significantly warmer, it picks up the water vapour, freezes it and because so much has accumulated it dumps it right there on the shore. So whoever is on the prevailing leeward side of a lake get the snow jackpot. Because of where we are situated - surrounded by water, we get most of our snow from the lake when the wind is from the west, and then some from your regular winter storms too. There is snow in the forecast every day this week. Uncle Chris doesn't live on the leeward side of a lake, even though he does live near a large lake (Ontario), so most of the snow picked up by his lake gets dumped on the fine people of upstate New York. (NOTE: as I finished putting this together, southern Ontario got dumped on by a winter storm, so Uncle Chris has snow now).

Lake-effect snow in the Great Lakes (also not my pic!)

Luckily both girls seem to have a love of snow. Bunny a little more than Beans, who still seems to manage to get snow inside her snowsuit, no matter how much I attempt to get her all tucked in. Bunny will spend hours flinging herself down a hill, which is good because snow here starts in November and lasts until April (Started in October this year... and the odd early May snow flurry is not unheard of) and our yard happens to be a hill.

A young Bunny one November...

...and this was taken at Easter

I've been told people like pictures, so to end, a wintry collection of pictures of snow and snow related fun. Mostly because I had fun looking for old snow pictures!

This year. But we have more now.

If you have a lot of snow, you might as well celebrate it!

A walk in the snowy woods.
A lovely snow seat in the snowy woods.

Bunny. Toboggan. Snow Squall.
This is standard practice for her.

No post on snow is complete without a snowman! There. Done.