Posts Tagged ‘wilderness’

Many nature lovers ache for more close encounters with wildlife.  If wilderness adventures aren’t a possibility for you right now, perhaps answering the call of the wild lies in managing your expectations.

Wild fly visiting a wild daisy

Maybe you’re unknowingly already surrounded by wildlife.  This wildlife may not be getting picked up by your radar because as much as you may want to see it… it doesn’t want to risk any encounter with you.  Back in 2006, scientists estimated that up to 2,000 coyotes were thriving in the city of Chicago.  Raccoons and squirrels also thrive in urban areas.  These often become pests if they are intentionally or inadvertently fed by humans.

Unseen local wildlife may also be nocturnal (like the Eastern American toad shown at top or the raccoon below).  The best times to see activity are at dawn and dusk when animals are waking up or going home to sleep.

Tired raccoon still looking for grubs at the edge of the lawn at sunrise

You may also be underestimating the wild nature of creatures in your own backyard.   Just as fashion magazines have narrowed our vision of beauty over the years, so too have nature programs in exotic locales narrowed our idea of what’s wild.  Even small or unsightly creatures deserve a closer look.  Just be sure to keep a safe distance!  Some  creatures might seem tame but wild is wild. 

Once you begin to observe wildlife in your own backyard, you may notice qualities you didn’t before.  For example, the red squirrel with the sleek fur at bottom left is younger than the one with the nipped ear at right.  You can also see a black stripe between its white underside and brown back which will fade in winter.  Good luck in seeing more wildlife!

Young and old red squirrels foraging for food just before sunrise

If you’d like to learn more about how to see more wildlife, see Sea Urchins in the Woods:  How to See More Wildlife.

Text and photographs copyright Amy-Lynn Bell 2012

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Sometimes it’s difficult to tell one cat from another, especially if they’re plants, not animals.

A cattail from last year looking ragged in springtime

In the spring, last year’s cattails look shabby and ragged.  An aggressive native species, colonies of this spike-like plant are commonly found in ditches and freshwater wetlands.  The soft down-like seeds are easily dispersed by the wind.  Besides being employed by birds to line nests, the down was used by First Nation’s people as a firestarter and to line moccasins and papooses.  Many parts of the plant are edible.  (For more see the Wikipedia page for Typha at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typha) New green cattails will appear later this summer and turn brown as the season progresses.

Cattails growing in a ditch.

Cattails are often confushed with catkins, the male (and sometimes male/female) reproductive part on some trees and bushes.  Below are catkins on an alder tree.    The word ‘catkin’ is derived from the Dutch word for kitten.  In late spring, these catkins certainly look like kittens’ tails.

Male catkins on a speckled alder in May

In the next image, you can see the greenish catkins as they appeared earlier this spring, hard and closed.  Also visible on the leafless branches are small brown cones leftover from last year.  These cones hold many small seeds that are a favorite of chickadees.

New catkins on speckled alder with last year’s cones

Below are the pussywillows that are such a welcome sight in early spring.  Their soft grey fur invites petting by young and old.  As a child I recall my first grade class glueing these to an image of a kitten to provide texture and color.  It was a common craft back then when most children had access to pussywillows near their homes.

Pussywillows are a type of catkin growing on willow trees or bushes.  Eventually, they go to seed and appear quite different than when they first emerged from the branch.

By now, it’s difficult to find evidence of  pussywillows in our woods.  However, fresh green catkins can now be found on the yellow birch trees.

Yellow birch catkin

With such staggered and changing appearances, cattails, catkins and pussywillows can seem as mysterious as their feline namesake.  Perhaps that’s part of their charm.

Text and images copyright Amy-Lynn Bell 2012

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Why did the snake cross the road?  Didn’t it feel the vibrations from oncoming traffic? 

Hey, do I look worried?

This maritime garter snake managed to survive being run over by a truck, luckily slipping between the tires.  Why was it willing to risk life and limb to get to the other side?  Was it looking for something tasty to eat? Snake berries perhaps?

For years I’ve heard both adults and children talk of ‘snake berries.’  Could these be berries that were frequently eaten by snakes? 

As children, my sons and their friends used the term to describe the fruit of the bunchberry plant, shown above.  It seemed that only the daring among them had ever tried tasting these snake berries.  My friend Sandy thought snake berries were blue. Others who knew of snake berries weren’t able to describe the plant in any detail. 

After a bit of digging, I discovered that the term is used to describe any berry of questionable edibility.  So, if you are in the woods, and see a berry that you’re not sure you can eat, you might choose to call it a snake berry.  All snake berries are therefore considered poisonous.  By the way, bunchberries are edible.  They’re bland with a large pit, but edible nonetheless.

Since the berries shown above are unknown to me and I’m not sure if they’re safe to eat, I’ll call them snake berries until I can learn more about them.  And since all snakes are carnivores, there’s no way that they would eat this or any other berry.

So, as to why the snake crossed the road… in Cow Bay, there can only be one answer:  it was the pheasants’ day off!

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For every beauty, there is an eye somewhere to see it.
For every truth, there is an ear somewhere to hear it.
For every love, there is a heart somewhere to receive it.
~ Ivan Panin

Messy woods that consist of a tangle of fallen trees are seldom considered worthwhile exploring. Yet there are wonders waiting to be revealed in the most unlikely places…

Though it’s now barely noticeable underfoot, millions of years ago, the creeping club moss shown above grew much larger.  The swamps that were filled with these club moss trees during the Carboniferous period were eventually transformed into the coal that’s mined today. 

Did a flicker make this hole? Standing dead trees (snags) in old growth forests offer places for wild creatures to nest. If flickers nest here this year, they’ll be looking for tasty ants, their favorite food, to feed upon in the neighborhood this summer.

Who treads the delicate stairs of this stair-step moss?   Utilized in the past as a covering for dirt floors and a gap filler between the logs of log cabins, it’s now being studied for its anti-bacterial properties.

The porcupine teeth marks on this tree reveal a delicate pattern.  Could we be missing a woodland delicacy by not including inner bark in our diet? It might be worthwhile trying in a survival situation.

Could this delicate creeping vine be partridge berry? Its rich red hue will turn to green later this spring when it will blend in more with the mosses surrounding it.

The forest is reflected in a woodland pool that will sustain a diversity of life before it dries later this summer. Do the faeries sit on this log at the end of day to relax and chat about the day’s adventures?

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.
~ Roald Dahl

These photos were taken on a most enjoyable walk in the woods yesterday with my friend Sybil of Eastern Passage Passage who posted a very different version of our adventure on her blog :) You can read her post here.

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The province of Nova Scotia’s NDP government is set to announce a bounty on coyotes today.  It doesn’t seem like Natural Resources Minister John MacDonnell has been informed about the questionable effect of coyote bounties.  Surprisingly, his own department’s website offers the following in its FAQ section on coyotes:

Why don’t we put a bounty on them, or cull them to reduce the population?
Bounties do not work. Bounties have been tried across North America without success. It is almost impossible to remove all animals or even to keep a population in check. A bounty instituted in Nova Scotia in 1982 was removed in 1986 when it was apparent that there was no impact on coyote populations.

Ref:  http://www.gov.ns.ca/natr/wildlife/nuisance/coyotes-faq.asp#8

Last year, members of the Trappers Association of Nova Scotia caught 1900 coyotes (approx. 25% of the total population) without a bounty.  You’d think they were lurking behind every tree.  Nevertheless, some people have complained of coyotes hanging around playgrounds in neighborhoods bordering woodlands.  But could live traps not be used in such places?

Will traps set for coyotes in the woods mean that pet owners will have to worry about their dogs and cats possibly getting nabbed in them?  Will hunters in the woods keen on acquiring as many bounties as possible prove a hazard to hikers?

Last fall, a woman was killed by coyotes while hiking in Cape Breton.  More recently, a woman fended off a coyote that grabbed her by the leg while hiking in Lunenburg.

For more information, see

Coyote Problems in Nova Scotia

Coyotes and Hiking Sticks

Coyote Bounty Coming  and N.S. Reveals Coyote Cull (The Chronicle-Herald)

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coyoteCoyotes that have lost their fear of humans have become a concern in some parts of Nova Scotia where they are getting too close for comfort.  Problems often occur in  neighborhoods that border wild areas where there is an overlap of territories occupied by people and wildlife.

Last week, a young female hiker was killed by two coyotes in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, heightening awareness of the problem.  Both coyotes were shot. One is still on the loose, but an autopsy on the other revealed that it was neither hungry nor diseased when it attacked.

Some blame the problem on people feeding the coyotes, either willingly or by keeping backyard compost piles. I once heard of a woman somewhere in the province who was regularly feeding a couple of  skinny, homeless dogs, until her husband noticed her actions and pointed out that she was unassumingly feeding wild coyotes!

Small pets often fall prey to coyotes looking for an easy meal. I’ve always kept my cat indoors after being warned of coyotes in the area years ago.  Toddlers playing by themselves outdoors might also be easy prey.

It’s been suggested that the coyotes that attacked the hiker may have been coydogs, the offspring of coyotes and dogs.  These hybrids may have less of a natural fear of humans written in their DNA.

wile coyoteAs a solution, many folks would like a bounty placed on all coyotes in the province. It’s already legal to kill coyotes that are a nuisance on your property and there is a hunting season for coyotes as well. 

One comment at the local newspaper’s website boasted that eight coyotes had been trapped in the woods near Bissett Road a couple of years ago.

The first coyote I ever encountered, a strikingly beautiful animal, was seen while I was driving along that road years ago. I saw one near there this past spring along the salt marsh trail. It wanted nothing to do with me and quickly ran off.  More recently, a Cole Harbour man complained that a coyote had approached him on the trail and seemed to have no fear at all.  The Natural Resources Department told him the animal was probably just curious.

coyote in marsh

Coyote along Salt Marsh Trail

Like other animal lovers, I don’t want all coyotes to be hunted for the sake of a few bad ones.  However, I also don’t like the idea of having to look over my shoulder while I’m out in the woods.  A balanced response to the problem is needed.

Coyotes are not native to Nova Scotia.  These clever opportunists infiltrated the province just last century, coming up from the US.   As wolves were made extinct in the province well over a century ago due to over trapping, coyotes have no natural enemies to keep their population in check.  I’d like to see parks introduce wolves as part of the solution to the problem.  This would put the balance back into the ecosystem that was removed by man in the first place.

If you do venture out in the woods, it’s recommended that you don’t walk alone and keep children close.  The best advice seems to be to walk loudly and carry a big stick.

See also:  Nova Scotia Celebrates Earth Day with a Bounty on Coyotes

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ragged robin

Ragged Robin flowers grow wild in the yard.  They just popped up a few summers ago and I’ve been mowing around them ever since.  They’re too pretty to cut down.

daisy patchI used to mow around the Oxeye daisies too but now restrict their growth to mostly a large circular bed in one corner of the yard.  Once they’re done blooming, I mow the area flat.

Wild flowers require no special care.  They grow where God has planted them (or I’ve transplanted them) and need no extra watering beyond what rains down.  They’re not as prone to blight and insect damage as introduced species seem to be, and the slugs don’t have much of an apetite for them.

Unfortunately, these plants are often seen as weeds and tend to be either tolerated or eradicated with great effort from city lawns.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

~ William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Whether or not a plant is considered a weed is a matter of perception.  Poet William Blake believed that ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.’  Signs of innocence are close at hand but it’s up to us to open our eyes, take notice and try to understand them.  ‘Everything that lives is holy’ and can bring us in touch with that which is infinite.  What positive things might happen today if we were willing to abandon our pre-conceived, limited notions of beauty and abundance?

shore birds in flight

Nature in its many forms possesses qualities that can connect us to this holy state.  From sandpipers on the ocean’s shore to doves on city streets, these signs of innocence are ready to give us a glimpse of the infinite and the eternal, if only we would adjust our focus.

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porcupine leaving trail

A Porcupine Leaving the Salt Marsh Trail

Leave the beaten track behind occasionally and dive into the woods. Every time you do, you will be certain to find something you have never seen before.

Alexander Graham Bell

Both humans and animals favor the beaten track.  It’s easy.  It’s less work and there’s less chance of coming across the unknown.  Yet, there’s a price to be paid for both men and wild creatures.

A Fox Trail at Rainbow Haven Beach

A Fox Trail at Rainbow Haven Beach

Over time, predators become aware of who goes where and when, and stalk their prey from the shadows.  Hunters set snares along trails frequently used by hares and rabbits.  Human travellers become accustomed to getting from point A to B, and begin to lose the peripheral vision that ignited their curiosity as children.  Minds become dull and prone to boredom.

Leaving the beaten track behind doesn’t have to involve throwing caution to the wind and setting out into the wild without a compass.  It can be as simple as taking a little extra time to just stop and smell the wild roses that are growing a couple of feet beyond the trail.

wild roses

Wild Roses Growing Near Rainbow Haven Beach

If you’re a fair weather walker, you might consider donning some rain gear and setting out when it’s drizzling and there are puddles waiting to to be splashed along the trail.  Even walking along the same path at a different time of day can open up a mountain of new possibilities.  The light looks different in the morning than in the afternoon or evening.  Animal traffic changes throughout the day so you might see creatures you’ve never seen before along the same trail.

Best of all, doing or learning something new will clear some of the cobwebs from your brain and make it work better for the rest of the day.  That’s reason enough to leave the beaten track behind. 

And now for something completely different…

~ Monty Python

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red leaf

Five elements are thought to exist in Feng Shui, the ancient Chinese practice of interpreting environments.  These are:  earth, water, fire, metal and wood.  Colors are also believed to represent these elements.  In the image above, a blazing red leaf gives the impression of fire. Its fire quality is emphasized even more by its triangular shape which is reminiscent of the tongue of a flame.


Brown garden stones, shown supporting one another above, represent the earth element, a symbol for wisdom.  Along with browns, yellows and oranges also allude to the nurturing earth.  Square shapes emphasize this element even further.  

green stems

The wood element, which symbolizes growth, is ubiquitous in a forest landscape where it is revealed in a variety of greens.  Yet, even near the ocean or in the city, green growth is not difficult to find.  The branch shape in the green floral stems above, found along a salt marsh, underlines the wood element in this image even further.

grey rainbow haven

White, grey, silver and gold reveal the metal element in nature.  Positively, this element can communicate strength and solidity.  Negatively, it can suggest sadness, as in the image above, of an overcast and rainy day at the beach.

Blue Flag Iris

Water can be represented in a landscape by a pond or stream, but also by the presence of cool, dark blues as shown in the Blue Flag Iris at left.  A bed of black tulips planted in the shape of a meander would be especially representational of the water element.

Like nature, color can be both simple and complex.  It never ceases to amaze or arouse wonder in those who seek to understand it better.

This post is written to provide further insight into the relationship between the elements and color in nature, as first introduced in my earlier post about a Midsummer’s Scavenger Hunt.

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.
~ Georgia O’Keefe

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Have you ever entered a clearing in a forest and suddenly discovered something so unexpectedly beautiful that it almost seemed otherworldly?  This happened to me this morning.  One moment I was on a familiar trail, and the next, I was stepping into unknown territory, lured by wildflowers on the edge of a small meadow.

field of flowers

It was very early morning, and in the twilight, the lupins looked like a blue haze over the green meadow grasses.  I wondered how many people had come upon this place at different times and felt a similar sense of awe.

gnarly tree

In one corner, a gnarly tree, bare of leaves, looked over the clearing with its arms raised in exclamation.  It had likely seen this lovely display on numerous occasions during its lifetime.  But such loveliness never fails to impress, regardless of how many times one sees it.  Our long, harsh winters work hard to erase the memory of such visions from one year to the next. 

Such sights in late spring refresh the spirit and are well worth the effort of trodding off the beaten track into unknown territory.  In more places than one can imagine, fields of wildflowers are waiting to be discovered.  God has built them.  Will we come?

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woodsThough I’ve always been more of a ‘tree planter’ than a ‘tree cutter,’ I have also found the activities associated with cleaning up the forest floor of debris and limbing trees to be both relaxing and invigorating.  It’s an excellent way to exercise in the fresh air.

I don’t use a chainsaw,  but I can do quite a bit of cutting with a handsaw or an axe.  I *love* knocking down standing dead wood.  There’s something satisfying in the thumping sound it makes when it hits the forest floor.  I also enjoy raking leaves in the woods, filling in the recessed areas and making the ground as level as possible.  Well.. at least I used to… I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I am driven to clear and clean woods.  Am I just trying to leave my mark on a space? 


Traditionally, only cleared land in the Northern regions of Europe could be claimed for ownership.  If woods were left in their primeval state they were considered a ‘no man’s land.’  When European settlers arrived in the New World, they brought with them the drive and desire to own their own piece of land.  The best way to stake their claim was to start cleaning up the woods. When the Scots arrived in Nova Scotia in the early 1800s, they cleared the primeval forests at an unprecedented pace.  

I spent much of my childhood in the woods with my grandparents who were both avid forest cleaners.  My grandfather removed dead branches and trees from around our ‘camp’ while my grandmother raked up white pine needles and leaves.  I too enjoyed taking my little axe into the woods to trim dead branches off the trees.  We burned brush while also creating large wood piles for later burning in the wood stove.

But I don’t have a wood stove, so there is little incentive for me to cut wood for heating.  Although the sight of trees standing at anything other than a 90 degree angle from the forest floor used to make me think I had to do something about it, I am now more hesitant to take down any that aren’t standing straight.   Though I used to be concerned about dry wood being more of a fire hazard, apparently, this is less of a concern once debris begins to decompose on the forest floor.  The variety of fungi growing in my backwoods is amazing. 

Just the diversity of both flora and fauna that is sustained by forests left in their natural state is enough reason for me to keep my hands off.  Recent reading on the value of old growth forests from a variety of sources has convinced me that they’re already pristine in their natural state.  Aside from clearing pathways for walking, my time in the woods is probably better spent on activities other than cleaning.

For more information, see:



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