The phenomenal spring of 2010 will go down in Fancy Free annals as being the warmest in living memory. We opened the cottage on the Victoria Day holiday weekend of the 24th of May. Normally opening weekend is a bit on the chilly side, especially if the north wind is blowing: we will often have the wood stove on in the kitchen to keep the cottage cozy as we do the many chores, inside and out, that are necessary. Walking around the island and taking long breaths of the aromatic smell of wood smoke drifting in the clean country air is actually one of my favourite things about opening the cottage. It means comfort, warmth and the promise of a pleasant corner to hover over with hands spread wide after coming in from the brisk winds and sparkling blue water of Big Rideau Lake. The ice in the lake usually melts by mid-April so the water’s often not much above freezing temperatures by the time opening weekend arrives. Gloves are sometimes handy, and not just for gardening.
Well, the wood stove never warmed up as it wasn’t needed this year. The weather was actually better in our part of Ontario than in California. With the sun bright in a cloudless sky, and temperatures at 30 degrees Celsius, we were running on par with Hawaii for balmy weather. We were amazed to see that the swimming and sunbathing season had already started. Some of the children from other cottages on the lake, having not brought their bathing suits, were swimming in their pyjamas!
The third week of May is the height of the spring bird migration in eastern Ontario, and on Victoria Day weekend Fancy Free Island was filled with bird song as the newly arrived spring migrants started to establish their breeding territories. Migration will continue for another few weeks but already many of the earlier birds have started nest building and egg-laying. Robins, some of the earliest arrivals, have often fledged their first brood by early May. We have a red-eyed vireo this year, singing madly by the boathouse trees, and flitting around the island. They are very small birds with very big voices, and their song is like a mad robin that repeats a few short, melodic notes constantly.
Throughout opening weekend, flocks of Canada geese pass overhead from time to time, often with about 60-70 birds flying together in a loosely formed, skirling V-pattern. You can hear them coming long before you can see them at times, since they honk to each other constantly as they fly.
The first sign of them is usually a faintly musical commotion in the air, high up and far away, sometimes above the clouds on cloudy days. Then the sound becomes louder, turns into multi-tonal honking, and becomes more insistent as the flock comes closer. Finally the honks reach a crescendo and you see the flock overhead, with one bird flying as the leader for a while and all the others strung out behind and beside as they minimize the expenditure of energy by flying just behind and beside one another. It’s like watching the peloton of a magnificent cycle race, with all the riders bunched together for aerodynamic efficiency, with spectators blaring trumpets and horns. Then the sounds gradually fade away and they disappear into the distance, bound for some unknown destination- maybe the shores of James Bay or the Arctic, who knows? In the middle of the May night, when I wake up and listen to the peaceful stillness on the island, sometimes I hear them faintly as they fly high overhead in the dark, navigating by the stars and bound for a distant shore in the northern wilderness. It never ceases to move me- the urgency of spring in Canada.
The loons have also arrived back on Big Rideau Lake, and we often hear them calling to one another with their long, eerie wails. Heather, one of our daughters, paddled close to a pair of loons last weekend in our kayak. Loons don’t seem to pay much attention to people in kayaks for some reason, and as Heather drifted over they calmly swam along beside her. Then another loon called far out on the lake, and the male of Heather’s nearby loon pair let loose with his answering call, literally under the nose of our mesmerized kayaker. It was a truly iconic Canadian moment, straight out of Hinterland Who’s Who.
One of our favourite new books this spring is Bird Detective: Investigating the Secret Lives of Birds, by Canadian biology professor Dr. Bridget Stutchbury. The author’s earlier book, Silence of the Songbirds, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award two years ago. Bird Detective is about the social lives of birds, and is especially fun on bird reproduction biology. Do you know that with some songbirds, almost every egg in the nest has a different father? That the males of some species are routinely cuckolded by their seemingly faithful mates flying off the nest for fast, surreptitious copulations with males from other territories that can sing well or display colourful feathers? The inside cover says it all: Sex, adultery, betrayal, divorce- right in your own backyard! It’s great summer cottage reading, especially lying in the Fancy Free hammock with the birds singing all around. You can order it from http://www.harpercollins.ca/books/Bird-Detective-Bridget-Stutchbury/?isbn=9781554683475.