Celebrating bees

We tend to take these busy little workers for granted, and many people are afraid of them (with good reason, for anyone who has an allergy), but in their tiny unassuming way they’re one of the most important creatures we have on our planet. Without their pollination of plants, we’d have a lot less to eat. Today’s post is in honour of World Bee Day.

It’s challenging to get a good photo of a bee. You need a lot of patience to try and catch them hanging around in one spot long enough; they do live up to the saying ‘busy as a bee’. I’ve tried many times; the photo above is one of my best, but I have plenty of photos that are as fuzzy as their little bodies.

I’m lucky enough to not be allergic, so I really enjoy watching bees zip around from flower to flower. I was stung many times as a child — we lived on a farm in northern Ontario that had an extensive patch of wild blueberries across the road and up a hill, and my mom and I would go picking as soon as the berries ripened. Sometimes we emerged unscathed, but I remember quite a few times when we fled back to the farmhouse sporting a few welts. My mom was a nurse, so she kept a ready supply of vinegar around to make compresses for the stings. The berries, and the adventure, were worth it 🙂

At my home now we have several plants that the bees love to visit: a pink spirea in the front, a pea bush in the back that fills with yellow flowers in the spring and is a favourite of area bees, and a big linden tree also in our back yard which, in years when it blooms, spreads its wonderful fragrance through the air. The huge bumblebees really love the linden, and there’s something about their drowsy buzzing that makes the world feel perfect for a while. We are proud bee supporters!

There are many plants available for home gardeners that invite bees; if you’re worried about having them around, as far as I’ve observed every summer, they’re really not interested in us at all and we’ve never had an issue — except when our late dogs each caught one in their mouth and learned that wasn’t such a good idea :/

You can learn much more about bees and World Bee Day at the Food and Agricultural site of the United Nations, and you too can “Bee Engaged”.

Photo by me and all rights reserved.

Blossom time in Niagara

This week we’re celebrating blossom time in the Niagara region, which is Nature’s sign that spring has truly arrived.

Every May fruit trees all over our farmlands cover themselves in gorgeous flowers. The blossoms don’t last long, and the timing is tricky if you want to see them — like fall colours, it’s all dependent on the weather. This year, with plenty of mild weather, sunshine and rain showers, the blossoms have arrived right on cue, and I thought I’d share them with everyone who can’t come and see them in person during the continuation of the pandemic.

Our sublime May light makes the blossoms look almost incandescent — rows of glowing colours in orchards, lining our parks, and dotting our city streets.

In the photo below, cherry trees line the fringes of a historic site called McFarland House, built in 1800, and the thick showers of pink blossoms contrast strikingly with nearby red maples also flaunting their best spring outfits.

The resplendent clusters of pink flowers pop against the trees’ craggy grey-green bark.

I believe these are Japanese flowering cherries; here’s a closeup of the blossoms and new leaves for anyone who might have a better idea than I do.

It’s not just fruit trees that are livening up our landscapes; here at Queenston Heights in Niagara Falls, vibrant tulips are showing off their best colours. This historic site, which commemorates the first major battle in the War of 1812, is also the southern terminus of the Bruce Trail, the famous hiking trail that runs for 900km (about 560 mi) from Niagara northward to Tobermory on the shores of Georgian Bay.

I’m partial to variegated tulips…

…but all of the flowers were putting on a grand display of their lush petals and intriguing variety of reproductive configurations.

Niagara Falls also boasts quite a pretty 10-acre lilac garden.

The garden is free to visit; you can spend an entire morning or afternoon there, inhaling the wonderful perfume of the flowers…

,,,and admiring the different varieties. There were a handful of us getting some outdoor exercise on a lovely day, although rain was on the horizon.

I loved the pretty variegated leaves on this shrub.

Turning back toward Niagara-on-the-Lake, I found numerous pink-strewn cherry orchards…

and white apple orchards lining the roads.

Clusters of white apple blossoms were bursting out on all the branches, their sprays of delicate pistils making them look like lace.

Even the other trees are sporting froths of bright new leaves. I love this time of year, when the air is fresh and invigorating, and the sunshine begins keeping its promises.

Heading to the Fonthill area, numerous farms are studded with the stubble of last year’s corn stalks.

Even though the region is starting to drown under the weight of wineries (over seventy in about 700 square miles), if you take the time to wander the back roads you can still find pretty farms tucked away.

In fact, a leisurely wander is the best way to see the region’s spring beauty when you have a chance. You might even spot some of the area’s wild turkeys searching a field for lunch. There used to be one that patrolled an intersection near where I live, stopping traffic for the better part of an hour as it strutted up and down the road. (If you’ve never seen one for yourself, they’re huge birds, up to four feet tall and rather ornery.)

Hiking trails abound; this section of the Bruce Trail is twinned with a trail project in South Africa, surprisingly enough.

Even here the trails were luminous in the afternoon light.

At some time in the future, when life has returned more closely to normal, you may want to visit the Niagara Region in the springtime, when it shows all of its prettiest colours. In the meantime, I hope you have some lovely areas to explore and let Nature work her magic.

Celebrating Earth Day Part 2 – Lake Nakuru

Countries in Africa all seem to abound with amazing, varied landscapes, and Kenya is no exception. The country is split horizontally by the Equator, and longitudinally by the massive tear in the earth known as the Great Rift Valley. The widening divergence of the two tectonic plates has given rise to a string of soda lakes — shallow salt lakes where masses of algae bloom, which in turn attract masses of flamingos that throng the waters to feed. Lake Nakuru, about three hours northwest of Nairobi, is one of those, and it’s a fascinating place to visit.

Approaching the Lake Nakuru National Park in the dry season, we were in for something of a surprise. An ominous white plume stretched across the sky. I asked our guide what it was. “Just a bush fire,” he replied serenely. “It’s not near the lodge, so nothing to worry about.”

Sure, I thought. As he checked us through the park gate and we drove the winding road towards Lake Nakuru Lodge, our home base for the night, we were surrounded by charred bush on both sides of the road, with flames still dancing in spots.

He hadn’t mislead us — the lodge property was intact in its beautiful Kenyan landscape, and the air fairly clear, although we could see great billows of smoke across the hills from the area down by the swimming pool. The fire was definitely still burning away in parts of the park.

Wildfires can happen from about November to March north of the equator, and may start from a lightning strike, but they’re also sometimes set by the park to preempt larger fires. I’m not certain why this one started, but judging by the sign on the lodge grounds, such fires are a common-enough occurrence.

They can often be beneficial for the ecosystem, eliminating old dead trees and clearing space for new growth to thrive. We’d spotted numerous wildlife, like the tawny eagle and black-backed jackals above, prowling through the haze to search for the fire’s bounty in the form of small wildlife who hadn’t escaped the flames or smoke. Nature has a cycle of constant renewal that’s much wiser than anything we humans have done to the planet.

The lodge is tucked into a hillside above the lake, set in a pretty garden-scape filled with native plants.

We noticed this sign outside the restaurant, and there were a number of native Kenyans in traditional garb walking about to chase off the pesky primates.

It didn’t take us long to spot the troupe lurking at a dried-up little pond just beyond the lodge’s perimeter fence.

After lunch it was time to head down to the area around the lake. We were treated to the sight of the rare and very endangered Rothschild’s giraffe along the way. Lake Nakuru Park is one of the few protected areas where you can still see their beautifully-delineated spots and white ‘stockings’.

This Thompson’s gazelle watched us carefully on the flat grasslands. We had stopped just close enough that we were encroaching on its safe zone — often animals won’t even pay attention to visitors, but if you’ve gotten their attention it means that you’re getting too close. Any closer and the animals will do one of two things: bolt, or charge the vehicle. A pretty gazelle will only flee, but there’s one animal you don’t want to push the boundaries with.

Cape buffaloes are huge and cranky, and when they take a run at you they mean it. They are extremely dangerous.

Evidence of the lake’s salinity is visible as you near the shores: thick incrustations of salt coat the sand and scrub.

Animals often go down to the lake for that very reason — a huge natural salt-lick.

We even had our one and only sighting of the almost-extinct white rhino. They’re not actually white — their name comes from the Afrikaans’ word weit, which refers to their wide mouths that are made for grazing along the ground. (Black rhinos can be distinguished by grazing higher up among the shrubs.) We’ve seen no rhinos on any other of our safaris. The few remaining white rhinos in Kenya are watched around the clock; I hope this mother and son are still alive.

Many types of birds spend their time at the lake, including cliques of fishing pelicans, who swim in groups and by some unseen signal all dunk their heads to fish simultaneously.

The dry season at the end of February wasn’t peak time for the Lesser Flamingos, so while the populations on the lake can rise to the millions, there were far less when we were there, but it was still something to see – several thousand of the birds turned pale pink by the pigment in the algae they scooped up from the alkaline water. Groups gathered to do the strange choreographed dances you may have seen on television, shuffling along and swinging their heads in unison.

As the sun began to sink and our guide headed back to the lodge, we came across another rowdy bunch of Olive baboons, which are much fluffier than their Chacma cousins in southern Africa. This group was busy grooming and getting ready to settle down for the night.

Back at the lodge we watched another glorious African sunset cap off another amazing day in the wild.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these peeks at two lesser-known marvels of Africa, and that they’ve provided some insight into how precious such places are. We humans are the caretakers of the planet, and we’re failing at the job. If things don’t change, the children of our nieces and nephews may never get the same chance to see the wonders of nature.

All photos, unless otherwise specified, are by me and all rights are reserved.

Celebrating World Earth Day – beautiful Samburu in Kenya

The more my hubby and I travel around our planet, the more special we realize that it is. We’ve also seen what’s been lost already — creatures already extinct, more headed there now, and entire habitats destroyed by humans. If humans aren’t careful, within our lifetime there may be no more lions, no more elephants, no more orangutans, no more polar bears.

And the loss of each species degrades the entire ecosystem, until a point where it may threaten all life on earth — even ours.

Many people around the world are working very hard to keep that from happening; you can read about some of them on the Earthday.org website.

And to show you how special our global ecosystem is, I want to share with you one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, the Samburu National Reserve in Kenya. It’s not on the standard safari-tourist track, which is both a shame and a blessing. This is a longer read, with lots of photos; I hope you enjoy it.

Located more or less smack-dab in the centre of the country on the fringe of northern Kenya, Samburu is about a 7-hour drive north from Nairobi, along paved highways that pass through numerous small towns holding fascinating slices of Kenyan life.

Our safari vehicle was essentially a van with big slider windows, as well as a pop-up top; this had to remain closed while we were on the main roads. However, as soon as we turned off onto the reserve property, our guide opened the top up to allow us amazing views as we rode through the ruddy landscape.

Our lodging for two nights on this mobile safari was the Samburu Sopa Lodge, and although it’s only a mid-range lodge, it remains one of my favourite places in all of Africa.

The lodge is fairly remote, surrounded by miles of wilderness in all directions. Thatch-roofed buildings blend into the landscape, and have a casual feel, as if you’re staying at your own second home. The rooms are simply furnished but comfortable, with full bathrooms and electricity for part of the day (typical for remote lodges like this), which means you can use some small grooming appliances and charge up your camera batteries when needed.

The rooms each have their own walled patio looking out onto the surrounding bush — lovely places to sit in the morning or at dusk…

…and often a great place to watch wildlife meander past. Our room was visited every morning by a very inquisitive Yellow-billed Hornbill, which would perch in a nearby tree and squawk loudly.

The main areas of the lodge were atmospheric and authentic without being pretentious. The photo below shows the walkway from the lobby to the dining room.

The dining room was one of my favourite places to spend time, overlooking the wide acacia-studded savannah. We’d often see animals grazing in the distance while we were eating a meal — Baboons, Dik-dik and more.

Game drives start early in the morning, just as the sun is making its way over the horizon.

Samburu is located in the drier northern part of Kenya, so there were many standard African species of animal as well as some specially adapted for arid conditions. We were there in the dry season (late February), which was actually a fantastic time to go. Most people go in our summer to see the Great Migration, whereas we practically had the reserves to ourselves, and the dried-out landscape allowed us to have wonderful views of the animals. It was easy to see this tiny Dik-dik, one of the smallest types of antelope, in the shade of a thorny bush.

On the other hand, you can never miss the raucous Olive Baboons, quarreling and romping as if they own the place.

Secretary birds are common in eastern and southern Africa, with their spiky headdress picking up the morning light.

There is a lot of bird life in Samburu, including some species we hadn’t seen before, making it a bird-spotter’s paradise for creatures like these spectacular Vulturine Guinea-fowl…

and the sleek Eastern chanting-goshawk.

The East African Oryx, or Beisa Oryx, is well-suited to the dry landscape, able to retain water by raising its body temperature to avoid perspiring.

Two unusual species that are found here and hardly anywhere else are the gorgeous Reticulated Giraffe — the photo below shows one grazing just yards from another group’s safari vehicle —

— and Grevy’s Zebra, which lives in only in northern Kenya and Ethiopia, and can survive up to five days without water. It is strikingly beautiful, with narrowly-spaced stripes that cover its face and extend all the way down to its hooves. (The standard zebra that you’ll see in most photos is Burchell’s Zebra.)

One of the most unusual antelopes we’ve ever seen lives in Samburu as well — the Gerenuk, also known as the ‘giraffe-gazelle’. It not only has a much longer neck than most antelopes, but can also stand up on its hind legs, stretching its body into the higher portions of trees to graze where other antelopes can’t.

Elephants in Samburu have the same grey hides they do elsewhere, but bathing in the reddish dust has given them their ruddy hue.

Even the termite mounds are red-tinted, making them look like strange alien growths against the dry grey shrubs.

Just as in other parts of Africa, roads through the reserve are minimal and make for quite an interesting ride as you bounce and sometimes tilt sideways along the way. Roads back home in North America aren’t nearly as much fun!

Of course the big cats make a home in Samburu. Leopards are here, although we didn’t spot any, but we did see this cheetah family out on the prowl…

,,, and these lion cubs chowing down on their evening meal in the shade with their mother.

Lions are stunningly beautiful out in the wild. Because of habitat loss and diseases caught from being forced to turn to livestock for food, they are rapidly reaching endangered status. It would be heart-breaking indeed to lose these magnificent creatures.

Samburu Reserve runs along the banks of the winding Ewaso Ng’iro river, which was almost completely dried up during our visit. Nevertheless, it had a lush, primordial beauty, fringed by riverine forests sprinkled with multi-branched doum palms (seen in the photo below). This is what I have always imagined the Garden of Eden looked like.

In fact, as we stood on the red sands of Samburu, I had the most remarkable feeling: as if we’d stepped far, far back in time to when the world was created. There was no sound except the breeze rustling through the trees and the animals walking through the bush. The land seemed to stretch endlessly into the distance, beyond the blue hills and devoid of any other humans or the stamp of civilization. The land felt ancient and untouched.

The Samburu people, who are believed to have migrated from the areas around the Nile, have a village near the river, and we had the opportunity to visit it.

They still live in a very traditional way, in huts constructed of tree branches and other found materials. They keep the lions out at night by closing the gap in a thick perimeter fence made of thorn branches.

As a semi-nomadic people, they hunt but also keep cattle, let out for the day to graze.

Women wash their clothing at the river, even during dry season.

Children do chores and play, as all children do…

… while the adults put on their colourful robes and performed traditional dances for us. They make beautiful beaded jewellery; I bought a necklace from the woman who made it.

We also saw a demonstration of how to make fire in the old way.

The provision of a school by the government has curtailed their nomadic existence, and we also saw the odd cell phone around the village.

A word of warning should you ever go to Samburu and make a point of visiting the village: take lots of water and cover up well. We spent two hours in the hot sun, and as fascinating as it was, by the time we returned to the lodge I had some heat exhaustion, relieved by beverages and a long dip in the cool on-site swimming pool.

Sunsets in Samburu were glorious as our guide brought us back to the lodge; in Kenya, as in many African countries, night drives are forbidden because the spotlights used disturb the animals.

One of the most amazing stories to come out of Samburu — you probably saw it somewhere in the news media in 2002 — was the wild lioness who, instead of killing and eating a vulnerable baby oryx, decided to adopt it. You can read more about it on the African Wildlife Foundation website.

No one knows why the lioness decided to adopt the little antelope, whose mother was still alive and would stop by to feed her baby — perhaps it’s just the magic of Samburu.

As always, all photos are by me (unless otherwise specified) and all rights reserved.

Spring fever

We’re having an early spring here in southern Ontario — a relief after what seemed like a long, dreary winter lurking around our homes. Over the past few days I’ve been out documenting any signs of spring, and for everyone who needs a virtual dose of sunshine and fresh air, here are some of the treasures I came across.

Trees on a local farm are coming into bud, creating a reddish haze in the orchard
At a large pond, dried reeds languish in the dark water
A Canada Goose keeps lookout atop its log island
Plump red berries hang temptingly atop a waterside shrub
These Bufflehead ducks were hard to take a clear photo of — they really zipped around the pond (male with a full white ‘shawl’ top left, two females with white cheeks lower right)
The bushy head of one of our most invasive weeds, Phragmites, glows in the afternoon sun
Painted Turtles warm up on a log
Fishing ducks
Tiny grape hyacinths have started spreading at our local botanical garden
Beautiful white crocuses
A lone clump of daffodils, my favourite flower
A bee making the most of some Coltsfoot
A rainbow of crocuses carpets the ground beneath a wide tree still waiting for its leaves
I loved these pretty Variegated Crocuses
Paved pathways wandering through the grounds wait for the return of visitors…
…as does this shady rustic gazebo
Vivid school of goldfish in one of the ponds
Clusters of snowdrops popping out
Fuzzy catkins bursting out all over some of the trees
Even a few tulips breaking ground

All photographs are by me and cannot be used without my permission.

Ice blue and shamrock green

Apologies – I completely lost track of time this week and thought today was still Thursday! It must have been the giddiness from the unusually fine weather we’ve had this week: shining sun and temperatures like a warm spring day, which, coupled with a lessening of our Covid restrictions, drew a lot of people out of their homes into the fresh air.

I headed over to the Welland Canal, the system of locks which transport ships between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Lake Erie is at a higher altitude – 326 feet higher – than Lake Ontario, so beginning in 1824 a series of versions of the canal system were built over the next 153 years into the one we have today.

Residents have a love-hate relationship with the Canal. It’s a remarkable feat of engineering that holds up road traffic numerous times every day during shipping season as the bridges are raised to let boats through.

The ships passing up and down the canal are a continual attraction, though, and the waterway is part of the St. Lawrence Seaway system, which employs a lot of people.

Over the winter, from January to March the canal is almost completely emptied of water, which usually freezes up and would be impassable to ships for several months.

This year the canal is set to reopen on March 31, but I was surprised to find that it’s already been filled back up – this past weekend there was still only a shallow trickle of water along the bottom of the deep canal.

At most of the locks you can park and walk around to get a good close-up view of the system of gates that close to allow each lock to either fill with water to raise a ship upward toward Lake Erie, or slowly empty to lower a ship downward toward Lake Ontario.

There are ships in the Port Weller Dry Docks getting their winter repairs, and tug boats waiting to guide them out when ready.

Despite temperatures of 21 degrees Celsius and bright sunshine, a thin skin of ice still floated on much of the canal water, raised upward itself as the gates began allowing water to refill the canal like a series of overflowing cups from Lake Erie.

A trail runs along the canal for walkers and bikers, and ship enthusiasts, with handy benches for rest stops or just ship-watching.

On this flat section between Locks 2 and 1, the ice blanket was extensive, but a wide crack had opened up and zigzagged almost all the way from one bank to the other, and some Canada Geese were resting at the edge. It was a great photo op that I had to stop for.

Chunks of ice also crusted the rocky banks, glittering in the warm sun.

It was a great afternoon outing, and then it was time to hit the grocers for supplies to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day next week.

Although I have no Irish background at all, each March this holiday promises that spring is just around the corner. I’m not into the green beer type of celebration, but the Irish love good food and March 17th is another great excuse to cook up something delicious.

What did we actually eat when we were in Ireland two years ago?

It rains a lot in Ireland, and I believe there’s a direct correlation between the weather and the comfort factor of Irish food.

Irish Stew, hearty and filling, is ubiquitous, and also seafood, and fish pies stuffed with a melange that often includes salmon under a topping of mashed potato.

A filling bowl of Irish lamb stew

You can find all the classics in the restaurants, from soda bread (delicious with fresh creamy Irish butter, by the way) to boxty and colcannon, but other cuisines are well represented. One evening in the Temple Bar district of London I had a fabulous Mediterranean chicken dish with lemon and olives, and in Killarney we had great pizzas at a pizza-and-ale joint just across the street from our hotel.

Breakfasts are filling, from scrambled eggs, bacon, roasted potatoes, baked beans, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, and toasts to rich bowls of oatmeal strewn with fresh fruit.

Barry’s Tea seems to be the tea of choice for a lot of restaurants, and the Irish make a pretty stiff cuppa indeed – a pot for two people usually held three teabags! Barry’s is hard to find around here, though, so typically at home we’ll drink Twinings Irish Breakfast tea.

Sweets in all their forms are really popular and just the thing to shore up your energy after a few hours of exploring. I had one of the best cinnamon buns ever from a roadside food truck as we zipped from the north to the west coast. Lunch was several hours away as we stumbled upon the little truck miles from anywhere, so we bought cups of tea and buns and perched on a picnic table enjoying the view while we refreshed.

Individual lemon meringue tarts are a common sight, and also Banoffee pie, trifles topped with whipped cream and bread pudding with sauce.

Rich slice of Banoffee pie

So if you’re of a mind to have some cozy Irish food on what, for us, will be a chill and cloudy day just on the cusp of Spring, you have lots of choices to evoke a trip to the Emerald Isle. In fact, I’m making myself hungry just completing this blog. Slainte! 😊

All photos on this site were taken by me (unless otherwise indicated), and may not be copied or used without my permission.