Back to nature: Tour of the Ellis Bird Farm.

Last weekend, my hubby and I took the 160 kilometre drive north to the city of Lacombe, Alberta, where we spent the morning picking haskap berries (more about that to come!) and the afternoon touring the wonderful Ellis Bird Farm, a haven of naturescaping just a few clicks out of the city.

Originally from Parkenham, Ontario, the Ellis family came west in 1886, and settled outside of Calgary. Son John Ellis and his new wife Agnes started homesteading in the Lacombe-Joffre area in 1907, and after they passed away in the 1950s, their children Charlie (d. 1990) and Winnie (1905-2004) took over operations of the large farm.  The siblings were both naturalists, and sought ways to make the property more wildlife-friendly.  Charlie was particularly fascinated with birds, especially the mountain bluebird, and he started building nestboxes to attract and protect this native species. His plan worked: according to the Farm’s website, there was a single nesting pair of bluebirds on the Farm in 1956, when Charlie began his efforts, and by the late 1970s, there were 60. Today, the Farm boasts the largest concentration of mountain bluebirds anywhere in Canada. Of course, it can’t hurt that there are over 350 functional bluebird nestboxes on the property and more are being collected from all over the world.

Winnie planted several gardens on the property, designed to attract birds, pollinating insects, and other wildlife. On the day we toured, everything was looking a bit bedraggled due to a severe hailstorm the night before, but there was no denying the beauty and effectiveness of the plantings: birds, bees, and butterflies were flying everywhere around us!

(Credit:  Photos #4,6,7, and 11 by R. Normandeau)


A view near the water garden (not an original installation; it was built in 1995).  At the top right of the photo, you can see one of the structures from the petrochemical plant across the road.  MEGlobal Canada has provided funding to the Ellis Bird Farm since 2004.


Just a few of the bluebird nesting boxes onsite.


Another view of the water garden.  Notice the placement of the dead tree branches – perches for birds to rest or survey their surroundings.


You can see the evidence of the large hailstones that pierced the leaves of the water lilies.


Charlie Ellis and his father John built this private grain elevator in the 1920s.  There aren’t many of these farm elevators left in the country.  It is still fully functional, although not currently in use.  It was partly re-shingled in 1996; you’ll notice some of the new construction.


We saw so many birds at the Farm and I’m pathetic at birding – I had to enlist the assistance of the wonderful forum at Alberta Birds Facebook page to ID this barn swallow.   We did see quite a few purple martins, which was pretty exciting for me – apparently the Farm is participating in a geolocation program with these beauties.  The famous bluebirds are finished nesting for the season and weren’t anywhere to be found.


Where’s Mommy?  More importantly, where’s our food?


Nooks and crannies everywhere for the wildlife….


Winnie’s Butterfly Garden.


Another view of the Butterfly Garden.


Finally, what’s a farm without an adorable little piglet?  😉


If you’re ever in central Alberta during the summer, the Ellis Bird Farm is a must-see!  If you need any further encouragement, there is a tea house….  🙂


What have you done to make your garden more wildlife-friendly?



Slugs and shallots.

I spent the morning out at my plots in the community garden, harvesting the rest of the Asian greens that were on the verge of bolting. Seems the slugs had gotten to some of them before me – my mibuna was full of the little slimers. Not impressed. Surprisingly, this is my very first time dealing with slugs in the garden – although I do have experience with them from my garden centre days, when potted roses brought in from the west coast often had stowaways in the form of baseball-sized banana slugs. (I quickly learned Lesson #1: Never, ever unload live plants without wearing gloves!). I’ll never forget the time a co-worker thought she’d be cheeky and put a giant slug next to our boss’s coffee cup on the desk in the greenhouse…let’s just say, it’s a good thing our boss was in a pleasant mood that morning and was already on his second cup of java, because he hated slugs as much as I do.

I’m not certain if these three jokers had any advice about the slugs, but they were sure trying to tell me something:



I’ll bet they’re the little rascals that have pulled every last shallot out of my plot, pecked holes in them, and then left them to rot. I cannot figure out why magpies would want to eat shallots when there are (slugs) strawberries just a few plots away, but I do know I won’t be eating shallots that I’ve grown myself anytime soon. Oh well, shallots are…overrated. Or something. Right? 😉

What pesky critters are currently bothering your plants?

Snow and shrikes.

Well…another day, another heavy snowfall warning:  this time we’re not at all fondly anticipating 25 cm (almost 10 inches) of the white stuff.  My flowerbeds are still covered in snow from the storm we had on Thursday!  Grrrrr….!   Caught between bouts of precipitation (and my struggle to learn patience), I took the time to head out for a long walk in Nose Hill Park yesterday.  I kept thinking back to last year around this time, when a similar trek uncovered hundreds of wild crocuses peeking out from the grasses…sigh.

IMG_5539(1) cropped

No wildflowers here….


(I have to apologize for the blurry photo – this was a handheld shot).  I’m uncertain whether this is a northern shrike (Lanius excubitor) or a loggerhead shrike (Lanius ludovicianus) – if anyone can assist, I’d be grateful.  I’m horrible with bird ID, and I’ve actually never seen a shrike before.  According to the Alberta Birds Facebook page, a great many shrikes have been sighted all over northwest Calgary, Cochrane, and the recreational area of Big Hill Springs in recent days.  My bird book tells me that the northern shrike tends to stick to habitat in the far northern reaches of the province, and I don’t know if it is common behaviour for them to head south at this time of year.   I didn’t realize that these birds were so vicious – an entry in John Acorn et al’s Compact Guide to Alberta Birds states:

…the Northern Shrike relies on its sharp, hooked bill to catch and kill small birds or rodents.  Its tendency to impale its prey on thorns and barbs for later consumption has earned it the name ‘Butcher Bird’…Northern Shrikes have also been documented to kill other birds without any intention of eating them.

Yikes!  And there it was, looking so innocent and cute!


There are crocuses under there somewhere, I just know it….  🙂

I hope your weekend is full of sunshine!  Will you be able to get in some gardening?