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?



Bee educated.

Bee on delph – photo credit Rob Normandeau, 2009.

“The Buzz About Bees”

On Friday, 16 September, I attended an information session given by Eliese Watson, the Director of the Community Pollinator Foundation and the founder of the group Apiaries and Bees for Communities (A.B.C.).  The audience was primarily made up of Calgary Horticultural Society members, all of us there to listen to Eliese deliver some fascinating facts about the sustainability of bee populations in Calgary and offer some suggestions about how we can encourage pollinators (particularly bees) to our urban gardens.

Eliese is a hugely knowledgeable and engaging speaker and it was easy to get caught up in her enthusiasm and passion for her subject.  We learned how to identify bumblebees, leaf cutter bees (a type of solitary bee commonly found here in the city), and honeybees, and discovered the habits and behaviours of each type.   For instance, did you know that bumblebee queens are born in the fall and then spend the winter in self-inflicted solitary confinement in a nesting site, only to re-emerge, nearly starving, in the spring?  Given our long, long, loooooong winters, that is a feat and a half!   (Of course, it helps that bumblebees have that fuzzy striped coat…still, it’s difficult not to admire their hardiness).  Eliese spent a great deal of time illustrating the function and construction of the honeybee hive, detailing the specific duties of the queen, the worker bees, and the drones, and how they all work together in perfect synchronicity to maintain and sustain the hive over a period of many years.  Honeybees can even control the temperature of their hives up to .3 degrees Celsius!

Given their energetic and meticulous strategy for sustainable living, it’s no surprise that any external inputs, however small,  to the hive can cause massive change and upheaval.  Even though honeybees do their own culling of any sick or injured members of their group, and the drones die in the fall (thus shrinking the population) a honey surplus is required for the hive to feed on through the winter.  The bees spend their summer days searching for pollen sources – and if we’re using chemicals on our plants, we’re obviously exposing the bees (and therefore, the honey we may harvest from them) to dangerous substances that interfere with their food supply, harm their immune systems, and negatively impact their survival.  At our urging, Eliese touched on the topics of Colony Collapse Disorder as well as some of the genetic manipulations and treatments that bees are being subjected to worldwide – all serious food for thought, and worth doing more reading about.  And we learned how to buy honey:  straight from the (local) farmer, if possible, with solid assurances that it is raw (unpasteurized) and the hive and bees have not been treated.

We can do a great deal in our yards and gardens to help all bee populations:  Eliese suggested building nesting sites for bumblebees and solitary bees, and she offered tips for planting gardens specifically for pollinators.  A large diversity of plants is necessary:  a mixture of pollen-bearing trees intermingled with herbs (allow some to bolt!) and a variety of flowers that bloom over the course of the entire spring, summer and autumn (following the “nectar flow”) is best.  Apparently honeybees prefer plantings in drifts, rather than single specimens, and single flowers are better than doubles – it has to do with the way they see things in the ultraviolet spectrum, and how they recognize patterns.  Offering bees a water source is also a good and oft-forgotten idea:  tweak your birdbath or rain barrel and create a dry “landing strip” so that the bees don’t accidentally drown.

Through her group A.B.C., which she set up in February of 2010,  Eliese is trying to integrate bees and communities within Calgary, providing education and resources to schoolchildren, homeowners, gardeners and fledgling beekeepers…and, really, anyone interested in bees and how they contribute to our food supply and our lives.  And while I can’t keep bees for myself, I can definitely do my part with my newly-acquired information and the way I design and maintain my garden!

Check out the Apiaries and Bees for Communities website, as well as their blog: