It’s fun to discover the birds

Red-winged blackbird

A red-winged blackbird, just like the two I was delighted to see on my drive to work this morning. (Photo from The Watershed, the blog of the not-far-from-us Lower Trent Conservation Authority)

Okay, so I could bemoan my fate tonight and tell you all about how, just as I tried to put a meat loaf into the Manse’s ancient Harvest Gold oven to cook for dinner, the oven decided to stop working. And how our great neighbours Chuck and Ruth saved the day by letting us bake the meat loaf in their oven. But I think what I’ve just told you is enough; the (fairly regular) appliance breakdowns at the Manse are probably of not much interest to anyone aside from Raymond and me.

So I’m moving on to a happier theme, which is: bird discoveries. I’ve written before (like here and here and here and here) about what an unexpected (for me, anyway) joy it has been to listen to and learn about the birds that we see and hear in and around Queensborough. If you had told me even a couple of years ago that I’d be interested in birds – what they look like, what they sound like – I’d have said you were talking crazy talk. I didn’t even like birds (I’ve always been kind of afraid of them), let alone have an interest in them. But that has changed since we moved to the Manse last fall. Now I eagerly watch and listen to the birds, and I am getting quite a kick out of identifying the ones I see. And today I saw two cool bird things.

The first was a pair of red-winged blackbirds flying across my field of vision as I drove west on Queensborough Road on my way to work early this morning. Because they were in flight, the red on their wings showed up beautifully. It was a lovely reminder to me of my maternal grandfather, J.A.S. Keay, who enjoyed watching and learning about the birds (I wrote about that here) and who was, as I recall, particularly fond of red-winged blackbirds. It was the first time I’d seen that particular bird since our Manse adventure began, and so I decided it was a propitious start to my day.

Ruffed grouse

This doesn’t look exactly like the ruffed grouse whom I came upon today having a leisurely stroll (the grouse, I mean, not me) across the main street of Queensborough. But it’s close enough. First grouse I’ve ever seen!

And then this afternoon on the way home from work, just as I crested the small hill by the former St. Henry’s Roman Catholic Church coming into Queensborough – and thank goodness I wasn’t going very fast – was what I guessed was a ruffed grouse, smack in the middle of the road, heading south to north, taking his (or her) sweet time, and not much interested in how he/she might be inconveniencing me on the final few hundred yards of my drive home. I slammed on the brakes, Mr./Ms. Grouse made his/her way across the street slowly and with as much dignity as a grouse can muster, and I was on my way.

Of course as soon as I got home I hauled out the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds (Eastern Region) and made sure my guesses as to the identity of these birds were right. And when I found out they were, I sat back in satisfaction.

And even as I write that, I wonder: who knew that watching and identifying birds could be so much fun?

Apparently it is just the latest of many lessons that living in Queensborough is teaching me.

A baby blue jay at the Manse, and lessons from my grandfather

Buh and John, March 5, 1966

This is my grandfather, who loved birds and baseball, the late J.A.S. Keay  – “Buh,” to me and my siblings – with my brother John. The photo was taken here at the Manse on March 5, 1966. (Doubtless that visit to my family from Buh and Didi – my grandmother – was to celebrate John’s second birthday, which would have been the day before.) As I was preparing to insert it into this post, it dawned on me that it was taken from almost exactly where I sit as I write. Full circle, people. Full circle.

My late maternal grandfather, J.A.S. Keay, loved birds and spent many happy hours of his life watching them, identifying them, and providing for them with birdbaths and feeders. Though I loved my “Buh” (which is what I christened him as a wee girl, probably because I couldn’t yet pronounce “Grandpa”), I never much cared for birds –until very recently. Now that Raymond and I are at the Manse full-time, I am paying a lot more attention to them, and enjoying every minute of my ornithological discoveries. (It helps to be living in a place as quiet as Queensborough, where birdsong is frequently the only sound one hears when one steps outside.)

This morning I got a big treat when I looked out a front window: there were robins all over the front lawn! I don’t know why they appeared en masse all of a sudden, but can only guess that the temperature has finally got just high enough (and that enough snow has melted) for worms to be reachable by their little robin beaks. I tried to get a photo, but of course they had all flown away by the time I got to the window with my iPhone. Anyway, they were a happy sign of spring.

My subsequent discussion with Raymond about the robins brought on another bird revelation, which was (and if you live here and know about the local birds, please don’t laugh at my ignorance): there are mourning doves! Which explains the gentle whoo-hooing that I hear most mornings when I leave the house and get into the car to go to work. Stupid me – I had thought those whoo-hoos came from an owl who was up a little late. But Raymond told me that there are tons of mourning doves in the vicinity. For some reason I’d never associated that bird with this place; is it possible that their being here in 2014 has something to do with climate change?

Baby blue jay

This isn’t our baby blue jay, but Raymond (who saw it) assures me it is very like. I feel like a proud grandparent!

And finally, a totally delightful thing that happened one morning this week when I was already at work but had to call home quickly: Raymond told me that there was a baby blue jay on our front porch! We have had lots of blue jays eating from our bird feeder this winter, and had suspected that some were nesting in the huge evergreen trees in our front yard. And apparently that was right, because now there is a cute little infant. How nice is that?

Because of their beautiful colour, I have loved blue jays since my grandfather first showed them to me, when I was very small. It has made me happy through this long, cold winter to see them around and about at the Manse. And now, apparently, we have a new generation coming along. And being sociable to boot.

As I have been writing this post this evening, and thinking about birds (specifically blue jays) and my Buh, I have also been thinking about baseball. Because, you see, Buh loved baseball, and was a huge fan of the Toronto Blue Jays. Who are playing their home opener tonight, even as I type. (We won’t talk about their opponents, the Yankees. We live in a Red Sox household.)

I think my grandfather would be very happy to know that I am getting interested in this bird-observation thing. And hey, Buh, this is for you: Go Jays!

This Christmas was for the birds. The blue jays, that is.

blue jays at the Manse

Look there, between the Christmas candy canes: can you see them? Three blue jays, busily snarfing up the bread crusts (leftovers from the turkey dressing) that Raymond had thoughtfully put out for them. I couldn’t get closer to take the photo, unfortunately, because opening the door invariably made them fly off.

The best gift I received this Christmas was a bit of an inadvertent one. And it had to do with blue jays, which since childhood I have considered very beautiful birds.

My grandfather on my mum’s side, J.A.S. Keay, was a kind and gentle man who was interested in birds. He always had bird feeders and bird baths in the back yard of his home, and binoculars at the ready to watch the activity at them – and lots of bird books in case identification or other information was needed. As a kid I absorbed a little bit of that interest by osmosis. And I decided early on that cardinals and blue jays – respectively bright red (my favourite colour) and beautiful blue – were my favourites, though I do know that some people (and lots of other birds) have issues with blue jays.

But when you live in the city, as I had for so many years before moving to Queensborough this past fall, you really get away from thinking much about birds. So it has been with a great deal of delight that I – and, I think I can safely add, Raymond –have been watching the avian activity in and around Queensborough. We’ve heard woodpeckers pecking and seen sweet little chickadees and, a couple of times (we hope more in the future), hummingbirds. We’ve seen crows and a bittern, and Raymond once identified a Northern “yellow-shafted” flicker. And one memorable night, as we were driving into Queensborough after a long trip from Montreal, an owl swooped gracefully into and out of our sights.

In the past couple of months, though, it’s been all about blue jays. I’ve see so many of them flitting about as I drive along the quiet country roads. And I never cease to delight in how pretty they are.

But back to Christmas Day. Raymond was making the dressing (or stuffing, as our U.S. family and friends call it) for the turkey, and decided that he would put the crusts he’d cut off the bread out in the snowy yard for the birds. (He’d recently been listening to the morning call-in show on CJBQ 800, Belleville‘s venerable AM radio station, and had heard people talking about how the birds have been having a hard time getting food because of all the recent freezing rain we’ve had – the berries and whatnot are covered in ice and inaccessible to them.)

So he scattered the crusts around in a couple of different places, and within minutes the word had gone out in the Queensborough blue-jay community. (If you stood outside you could hear them yakking about it.) And they descended on the lawn in droves, several at a time, grabbing a crust and flying with it back to the nest, and each time one would take off another would take its place. And they hung about in the branches of all our trees, including our relatively small recently planted front-yard maple, and flew hither and thither, and made lots of blue-jay noises, and just generally were having a heck of a time.

And it was absolutely delightful to watch. All these beautiful blue birds against the backdrop of white snow, on the ground and in the branches. We had more fun than anything.

It was a nice Christmas gift on Raymond’s part to the blue jays. And they returned the favour with their splendid show. Merry Christmas, blue jays!

Every nook and cranny of this house tells a story.

Manse front staircase, upstairs banister

The banister in between whose posts my little brother John once got his head stuck, creating a kerfuffle once upon a time at the Manse.

Every now and again when I am rattling around in the Manse, I am caught up short (and sharply) at how absolutely full of memory every square inch of that place is for me. I mean, yes, it stands to reason; it is the house I grew up in, and that I have now come back to after an interval of almost four decades. So of course it’s filled with memories, and most times I just bumble along with that notion just buzzing around in the background. And the fact that Raymond and I are creating a new (though very part-time) life at the Manse means that often the older stuff really is shoved into the far background, and I’m focused more on new things that are happening that will make newer memories.

This is a cute (I think) photo of my brother John in the Manse kitchen when he was maybe a bit younger than at the time of The Banister Incident. (Photo by my grandfather, J.A.S. Keay)

This is a cute (I think) photo of my brother John in the Manse kitchen when he was maybe a bit younger than at the time of The Banister Incident. (Photo by my grandfather, J.A.S. Keay)

But the other evening as I was climbing the front staircase (not to be confused with the back staircase), I caught myself absent-mindedly thinking, “Yeah, that’s the place where John got his head stuck between the banister posts.” And of course it was: when he was very little, my little brother John one day got adventurous (or something) and managed to get his head in between two of those posts. After which (you can see where this is going) he couldn’t get it back out again. Much wailing and worry ensued on the part of little John; much hilarity on the part of his mean older sisters, Melanie and me. I imagine it was Dad (who was the United Church minister, which was the reason we lived in the Manse) who came along and calmed everybody down and got John’s head back where it belonged (which was not in between the banister posts). In the years since then – this was probably 1968 or so, when John was 4, and that was not exactly yesterday – Melanie and I have every now and then hauled out the old story for a bit of a giggle at John’s expense.

But what hit me so much the other evening wasn’t so much being reminded of that long-ago comical (especially in retrospect) situation; it was the fact that I can look anywhere, anywhere, in that house, and come up with memories. Probably dozens of memories per square foot. Stories that would be too boring to the average outsider (you, good reader) to bother relating, but that mean something to my family and me.

What a gift it is to be in that place full of memory.

Easter at the Manse

This is me (at left) and my younger siblings John and Melanie at the Manse in 1966 – the era when we were at the prime age for enjoying an early-Easter-morning Easter-egg hunt. My youngest sibling, Ken, wasn't yet born; when he came along, he just added to the Easter-morning ruckus. (Photo by my grandfather, J.A.S. Keay)

This is me (at left) and my younger siblings John and Melanie at the Manse in 1966 – the era when we were at the prime age for enjoying an early-Easter-morning Easter-egg hunt. My youngest sibling, Ken, wasn’t yet born; when he came along, he just added to the Easter-morning ruckus. (Photo by my grandfather, J.A.S. Keay)

It has been a happy but very busy Easter Sunday here in Montreal for Raymond and me, which means I am sending out Easter wishes to readers very late in the day indeed. But better late than never, I think: happy Easter to all of you, wherever you may be! And if you are not of the Christian persuasion, then this: happy spring! (Because I think it really is here, despite the snow flurries that are showing up in this week’s weather forecast, for our part of the world at least.)

Because it was a busy day here in Montreal, I didn’t have a lot of time to reflect on Easter Sundays at the Manse back when I was growing up there. But there is one thing I do remember well, and I’m quoting the Grinch here: “The noise, noise, noise, noise!”

The fact that there were – and are – two staircases at  the Manse (as you can see in this photo: in the foreground is the rougher "back" staircase that leads down to the kitchen, and beside it, with only a plaster wall separating them, is the more formal "front" staircase) made our childhood Easter-egg hunts all the more rambunctious.

The fact that there were – and are – two staircases at the Manse (as you can see in this photo: in the foreground is the rougher “back” staircase that leads down to the kitchen, and beside it, with only a plaster wall separating them, is the more formal “front” staircase) made our childhood Easter-egg hunts all the more rambunctious.

That would be the noise of four little kids, early on Easter Sunday morning, charging up and down and all around the house looking for hidden chocolate Easter eggs. The Easter Bunny (in the form of my mum, I believe) had a system at the Manse whereby the egg hunt began with a little piece of paper on which was written a clue to one child – and I think it started with me, as the eldest, but I could be wrong about that – about where the first one was. So all four of us would go charging to that general area, and when the egg was found, with it would be another piece of paper with a clue for the next child (that would be my sister, Melanie), so we would then go roaring after that, and then there’d be a clue for my brother John, and then one for the youngest, Ken, and then it started all over again with me. And if I’m not mistaken, the Easter Bunny arranged it so that one find would be downstairs and the next would be upstairs, and that pattern would continue throughout the hunt. So there was much crashing up and down the stairs; and wasn’t it happy for all concerned that in that house there were, and are, two sets of stairs? All the better to crash up and down on!

Those are happy memories, as you can imagine. In my mind’s eye, the sun always shone on Easter Sunday morning. And then after the big chocolate-egg hunt, it was off to Sunday School and church at St. Andrew’s United as usual. With the great Easter hymns and a wonderful feeling of celebration at church, and the sanctuary packed full.

A joyous day, always. As today has been. I hope it has been for all of you too.

Of Actinolite bears, and picking up pop bottles

You never know what you'll find on the internet: tonight I discovered this vintage postcard featuring Actinolite's Buster and Bandy. It's for sale by a U.S. collector here. (Photo from

You never know what you’ll find on the internet: tonight I discovered this vintage postcard featuring Actinolite’s Buster and Bandy. It’s for sale by a U.S. collector here, but the sale ends tomorrow (March 19) and the price isn’t cheap. (Photo from

This is either Buster or Bandy, the two bears that in the 1960s were the star attraction at the service station and restaurant on Highway 7 near Actinolite that was called Price's, or the Log Cabin. People loved to stop in and watch those poor caged bears. They were, as I recall, famous for being fond of Coca-Cola, and would drink it out of the bottle. Note the classic vintage "Supertest" sign in the background. (Photo almost certainly by my grandfather, J.A.S. Keay)

Buster (or maybe Bandy) in the 1960s, behind bars at Price’s Log Cabin service station and restaurant on Highway 7. (Photo by J.A.S. Keay)

Longtime readers might remember my post from last July featuring Buster and Bandy, the caged Coke-drinking bears who were the star attraction back in the 1960s at Price’s Log Cabin Restaurant at Actinolite, just a few miles southeast of Queensborough on the Trans-Canada Highway. I also posted a couple of photos that my grandfather, the late J.A.S. Keay, had taken of the bears. Subsequently, another central Hastings County-based blog that I follow, Provost Family Cookbook & Archives, picked up one of those photos and asked readers if they remembered good old Buster and Bandy. (You can see the post here. And for a very entertaining music video that features Actinolite prominently and includes mention of the bears – though their names are incorrectly given as Mandy, Bandy and Moe – check out this post.)

The comments that came in to the Provost post were very entertaining; clearly people have very fond memories of the Actinolite bears. But one comment that was posted very recently was so great that I’m just going to quote it. Not only does Eugene have some good Buster and Bandy recollections, but he brought back another happy childhood memory. (Plus his signoff is classic.)

Yes i remember the bears. I was just a young boy. I’m 60 now. I grew up near Cloyne and we used to stop on our trips to Tweed. I remember giving them a pop. A pop wasn’t something us kids got regularly. 5 cents a bottle? I forget as i didn’t buy it. I just drank it. But we used to pick up empty bottles for a penny each. A dollar was a lot of money for a kid. 100 pop bottles. That was a lot of walking along the road. Polluters paid me haha. And i sold frogs. Now you can hardly use them for fishing. Times sure have changed in 60 yrs. i even thought in the future we would have a box that you ask a question and it would give you the answer. I’m typing on one of those. No flying cars yet though.

Vintage soft-drink ("pop," if you must) bottles, all found last weekend in Stratford: Hires root beer, Pure Spring ginger ale, and Wilson's ginger ale. Where are they now? But at least the bottles will live on in some nook at the Manse.

Now we collect them for their vintage look (Raymond and I found these in an antique mall in Stratford, Ont., last summer) but back when I was a kid, empty pop bottles meant cash for buying candy, and that was good stuff.

Good stuff, Eugene! I’m sure GM will be introducing the flying cars any day now. Meanwhile, thank you for reminding us all about the days of collecting pop bottles by the roadside. It’s hard to believe now, in these eco-conscious times we live in, but people used to toss soft-drink bottles out of car windows willy-nilly. We kids would get together and go for a walk along the roads outside of Queensborough and gather ’em up. I think by then the refund was up from a penny to 2¢ for a small bottle and 5¢ for a big one, but I could be wrong about that. As Eugene says, we kids benefitted from the polluters’ thoughtless ways. How exciting it was to take our collection of empty Coke, Pepsi, Crush, Pure Spring, Wilson’s, Mountain Dew, Dr. Pepper and Canada Dry bottles to Bobbie’s or McMurray’s general store and turn them into cash that could buy a pile of penny candy!

Ah, yes. Coke-drinking bears and bottle-collecting kids. And general stores.

Life was good.

Mittens on strings: good gear for cold weather, then and now

I don't know about you, but I could use a pair of these, to keep from losing them. This particular very cute pair of mittens (for children) are hand-knitted and available at, here.

I don’t know about you, but I could use a pair of these, to keep from losing them. This  very cute pair of mittens (in children’s size) is hand-knitted and available here at

Well, here we are in the middle of the January deep freeze, here in Eastern Canada, anyway. The high in Montreal today was -16C (3F), tomorrow it’s supposed to be -22 (-7F), and the week carries on like that. Yikes.

I think back to bitterly cold days when I was growing up at the Manse in Queensborough, and one morning in particular when my mum announced that the thermometer was registering 40 below! (Which, as you know, is the same temperature in both Celsius and Fahrenheit; it translates to “appallingly cold” on either scale.) Boy did she ever bundle us up to go meet the school bus that day!

And I recall lots of bright winter mornings when you’d breathe in the icy air and it would have the effect of kind of freezing the inside of your nostrils. Remember that? It’s been a long time since I felt that sensation. Global warming, I suppose. Or ceasing to pay attention to small wonders like that as a distracted adult, perhaps.

Anyway, what we’re experiencing right now is the kind of weather where mittens (or gloves) are not optional. But the problem I have with mittens is the same one I had as a kid: losing them. Which is why I think mittens on strings are an absolutely brilliant idea. Not only do the two mittens stay together, but thanks to the string being threaded through the arms of your coat, they also stay with it!

Didi (my grandmother Reta Keay) and five-year-old me at the Manse, December 1965. (Photo by my grandfather, J.A.S. Keay)

Didi (my grandmother Reta Keay) and five-year-old me at the Manse, December 1965. (Photo by my grandfather, J.A.S. Keay)

I remember as a kid getting annoyed with the mittens on strings that my Didi, my grandmother Reta Keay, would knit for us. I can’t remember why, however. Did the mittens climb up and get lost in the arms of the coat, maybe? Anyway, if it bothered me then, it certainly wouldn’t bother me now. I wish my Didi were still here to knit me a nice pair of bright red adult-sized mittens on strings. It’s just what I need to brighten up days like these. Not to mention keep my hands warm!