Nature

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We are bombarded by media, images flashing, moving, shifting…light and movement pounding our eyes in restaurants, malls, downtowns and theatres.  My life work, in whatever form it takes whether photographic or written, has been all about the minutia we miss.  This fox was right outside my back door in Shrewsbury, Ontario.  Taking my dog for a walk in early evening, it was my habit to drag along my camera.  This was one step, one moment, one second, one click before he slipped silently into the night unseen.  But for this photo, only my memory would have carried his image.  This memory would perhaps have been of a red blur, with knowledge no doubt of a fox, but surely even a great memory would have discarded the details of his face…his eyes, rich and amber, his black whiskers delightfully set against a white ruff, his ears, lined in black, pricked in the sure knowledge of my presence long before I clumsily found him  What would my memory have held of his paws so black and silky smooth, still filled with the dirt from his digging, looking for what…a grub, an old bone, a vole?

There are images of monumental importance, capturing world events, natural disasters, and famous people.  You will find none of those here.  For here through my lens are the simple, yet delightful things I find by just opening my eyes, my ears and turning my camera towards something nearby you might have missed, something splendid worth seeing…something you were just too busy living, to even notice.

Many of my articles, blogs and photos will share anecdotes of these surprises, and will shed light on the importance on the small and overlooked to the delicate balance of the world we all share.  I hope sharing them gives you a moment’s grace…a moment you drove right past, a moment the news did not cover, a “Laura Snippet”, as my husband calls them, that brings you closer to slowing down.  Enjoy!

Laura’s articles have been published, along with her photos in many periodicals including as a regular contributor to the Lake Erie Beacon.

 

NATURE

In the middle of suburban Windsor, as a nature fanatic at the early age of seven, Laura awoke her astonished and displeased mother from a nap, by holding a Painted Turtle only inches from her face, and declaring the classic…”look Ma….it followed me home!”  She had found the turtle crawling from the storm sewer in her front yard after a heavy summer storm! She has been caring for, studying, and recording wild creatures ever since.

 

Nature has always been a priority in Laura’s life.  While living in as diverse environments as suburban Windsor, metropolitan Toronto, and rural Southwest Ontario, Laura has always sought out the solace and beauty of nature through photography and writing.

OASIS HD TV “My Oasis”, Featured 2009

  1. Laura’s photography was featured on international satellite television in a four minute montage of Rondeau Bay nature, and a narrative based on an essay Laura wrote for their contest, about her personal “Oasis” in Shrewsbury, Ontario.
  2. Kate Abraham of Oasis HD TV stated…”The quality and beauty of Laura’s photos, was exactly what we were looking for” in this segment.  The segment was shown as “filler” between shows (OASIS HD TV) has no ads., and thus was seen many times in the spring of 2009, by subscribers all over the world to this beautiful High Definition satellite station.  http://www.oasishd.ca/
  3. Both the Chatham Daily News and the Ridgetown Independent carried full page stories about the international coverage received by Laura’s being featured on Canada’s OASIS HD TV.

http://www.facebook.com/oasishdchannel   Visit OASIS HD TV on Facebook!

Essay submitted by Laura Benson to OASIS HD TV for contest:

My Oasis is Rondeau Bay , Ontario a shallow wetland of natural beauty and stunning wildlife. Living on the shores of this Bay fills our life with abundance and peace. Every moment unearths a new exploration, sometimes as tiny as a caterpillar, sometimes as mighty as a waterspout. The seasons have us awaiting each new treasure…the goslings of spring, the fireflies of summer, the monarchs and thousands of ducks each autumn, and the hawks and ice sculptures of winter. It is a juxtaposition of nature and recreation, which maintains an awkward balance between the joy of sport and the solace of silence. Hunters, fisherman, all terrain vehicles, kayakers, and wind surfers vie for a chance to enjoy the waters and marshes of Rondeau Bay , while rare species of plants and animals compete for a shrinking environment, rich in aquaculture and wetland species. But as we look out over the Bay from our home each day we marvel at the dramatic changes in scenery, delight in the wonders of flora and fauna variety, and cherish the calming serenity this oasis provides in our daily lives.   This is truly our oasis.

ARTICLES

A recent feature article by Laura appeared in TROT Magazine, August 2009, “HOOF DOCTOR“, an article covering the rising fame of Horse farrier Ian McKinlay, formerly of Morpeth, Ontario, currently residing  in New Jersey, where he has become famous for fixing the cracked hoof of BIG BROWN, the Kentucky Derby winner in 2009.  Laura has a personal connection to Ian McKinlay, as her horses have been boarded on his family farm in Morpeth, for over twenty years.

Hoof Doctor byline for TROT magazine website blog.  This year’s Triple Crown hopeful launched hoof specialist Ian McKinlay into the spotlight, thanks to a ­troublesome quarter crack. But long before Big Brown — and long before the hype — Ian and his father were quietly and skillfully doctoring homebred ­standardbreds on their Morpeth, Ontario farm. By Laura Benson

 

Hoof Doctor” (Excerpt from)

Trot Magazine, August 2009, copyright owned by TROT magazine.

 

Somehow it felt like destiny in a six degrees of separation sort of way.   It was hot, and despite the wind coming through the driver seat window, the sweat continued to roll down my back. However, it was the traditional air conditioning of the old Chevy pick up being used to trailer us to Hiawatha on the day of the Belmont Stakes. In the trailer was one of our horses, bred, raised and trained by ourselves, the epitome of a lifetime love affair with horses. Thirty five years earlier I was a wide eyed ten year old watching Superhorse Secretariat pull away 31 lengths ahead of his competition, the announcer trying to come up with superlatives worthy of the moment. Secretariat is like a “tremendous machine” he had blurted out, and “he’s all alone out there”. Watching the big old black and white Zenith in my parents sticky hot house on a blistering Windsor summer day, I had never even sat on the back of a horse, but I was “horse crazy”, and as Big Red rolled the sand beneath him like a prairie jack rabbit, I knew that all dreams are possible, and that horses, with their magnificence and strength, would always be a part of my own.

Driving as we were on the way to the races with the radio tuned into a crackling reception of ESPN 850 AM, I felt like I had been transported back in time, and pondered the significance of my connection to Big Brown and the coming Belmont Stakes. No, we were not part of the huge investment conglomerate that had prematurely purchased 75% of the horse’s racing interests, nor were we particularly successful trainers, but we did have a bona fide interest in the results of Big Brown’s efforts, as we are stabled on the family farm of, now famous, hoof specialist, Ian McKinlay, and as such, we and millions of others had only one question on our minds. Would the hoof hold??

Somewhat fortuitously, I had stated to my trapped audience in the cab of the truck, that it really did not matter how Big Brown did, because Ian McKinlay had already proven to the world that there is hope for horses with bad feet. The horse had been patched and shod with Yasha shoes, the new product of Tenderhoof Solutions and he was racing in the Belmont. Whether he won or not, was immaterial to the worldwide understanding of an injury that had hitherto rendered horses unuseable.

Patching quarter cracks is certainly not new in the horse world, although Ian could certainly say that he was witness to the ground breaking technology from its very beginning, for about the same time I was watching Secretariat, Ian’s father Jim McKinlay was putting together a solution of auto bond and polyester fibres and using a household grinder to clean up and patch cracks on his own string of “Cashier” bred Standardbreds on his farm in Morpeth, Ontario. This was the same farm, in the same barn, that we had pulled our horse from on this very morning and headed for Hiawatha. Jim McKinlay was an inventive and resourceful man who liked practical jokes and wheeling for deals, and when he wasn’t farming and running auctions, he liked to race horses…the kind of grassroots horseman in Southwestern Ontario that made tracks like Windsor and Dresden great. He bred his own horses, trained them on his own carefully made farm track, and with the help of a few “local” boys including Dr. Gord Gilbertson who invented the “Rondeau Quick Hitch” we all use daily, Kevin Thye and Bill Jenkins, he shod them himself as well. This in particular was not a necessarily unique feat, unless you watched him, for Jim McKinlay shod his horses with one strong arm and the other ending in a hook, an unfortunate reminder of the dangers of farming and an accident in a previous decade. (for entire article please contact Standardbred Canada)

The Canadian Sportsman, April, 2004, “Why Do They Race“, a feature article studying the juxtaposition of pleasure horse owners and Standardbred Race horse owners based on her own personal experience, delving into the excitement and hard work of Harness Racing in Ontario, from the eyes of a Haflinger Pony owner and breeder.  Two very different worlds indeed!

 

Winter Predators

by Laura Benson

published in Lake Erie Beacon

March, 2010

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Winter in Rondeau Bay , belongs to the Birds of Prey. There is the occasional glimpse of a coyote, and little round balls beneath the feeders each morning, are proof that the gallivanting rabbits of summer are hiding until dark, but the presence of silent doom is almost palpable. The shadows that fall from nowhere and cause panic amongst the chattering goldfinches, many hitting the windows in absolute terror as they flee, are the stealth bombers of the wetlands. The simple truth here is, that if you are feeding the birds, you are also feeding the hawks!

Presently hovering grass height above the marsh so slowly and unsteadily that it appears it will simply drop to the ground is the Northern Harrier. A bird who’s ability to manoeuvre to a gliding standstill is so impressive that the British Royal Navy named their first VSTOL (vertical or short take-off and landing) fighter aircraft after it, the “Harrier” which entered service in 1969.

The Northern Harrier is in the Buteo family amid the Birds of Prey, identified by their long rounded wings and fanned out tails. The Harrier is unique amongst the hawks in that it imitates an owl, possessing a flat facial disk, which enables it to use both sight and sound to hunt. It also possesses extra owl like down, keeping its flight feathers silent, a deadly combination.

The Northern Harrier, is one of the easier Buteos to identify for its unique white rump patch, easy to glimpse at it sways from side to side while hovering low over open land. As in most Birds of Prey, the female is larger, and in this case is brown above, while the male is more gray on top and whitish on the bottom. Both possess a wingspan of 40-46 inches, making them one of the largest hawks to attack birds.

In spring a dramatic courtship flight might be spotted before they head back north to their summer grounds. “It might be illustrated by placing a number of capital U’s together as UUUUUUUU, as the turn at the bottom is well rounded ot, but at the apex, the bird almost stall, tipping downward again to continue the movement.” (Arthur Cleveland Bent, Smithsonian Institution, 1937, “United States National Museum Bulletin 167” (Part I): 78-95 www.birdsbybent.com

Also unique amongst hawks, the Northern Harrier builds a nest on open ground, of reeds and sticks, utilizing a high point or mound within the marsh itself, laying bluish oval eggs, and guarding the nest with ferocity. When the massive Harrier floats by our window, I take a subconscious inventory of my mini dachshund and calico cat, although neither would be at particular risk from this hawk, which only weighs between 11-26 ounces.

Two, more common hawks, are likely to be seen haunting your feeders in Southwestern Ontario at this time of year, and these are the Sharp-shinned, and the Cooper’s Hawk, both Accipiters in the Bird of Prey family. These are smaller hawks, whose bent wings and shorter span enable acrobatics through tree branches and bushes, stunning to watch, and deadly accurate. Accipiters fly straight with quick wing beats and short glides. They sit covered in trees or conifers waiting…”once the prey is spotted, the hawk quietly launches itself into the air, dives straight down for a few metres to pick up air speed, then flattens out and glides straight towards its quarry, never beating its wings unless the quarry flees…put(ing) on a tremendous burst of speed to close the gap and strike.” Revised Ursula Banasch, Ministry of the Envi5onment “Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Northern Goshawk”, 1973, 1975, 1990

At this speed identifying the blur can be difficult, but the Sharp-shinned has a sharp square tail, and the Coopers is slightly larger and has a long barred tail, and a dark “cap” on its head.

As shadows deepen and daylight turns to dusk, the elements of the hunt change and the night stalkers begin in earnest, for the Great Horned Owl already has chicks to feed before the snow disappears from the fields. If you can stand the intense cold of a deep February night from dusk to midnight, standing outside might provide you with a concert of the deep simple “whoos” of courting Great Horned Owls. Carrying for miles the deep “who-who…who whoooo” of the male is answered by the softer shorter notes of the females. In the fervour of courtship it is easy to confuse the males, and simply imitating their song, might reward you with a shadow out of nowhere, and the landing of an owl on a nearby hydro post with feathers puffed in anticipated defence of his territory.

Great Horned Owls maintain a small 8-10 sq kilometre territory year round, usually close to their original hatching. These owls do little nest rebuilding, preferring instead to occupy nests built previously by red-tailed hawks, or crows.

After a month of incubation under the female’s great wings, often obscured by a mantle of snow, the hatchlings emerge and spend the next two months voraciously gobbling up everything their parents can find them. Thus, at the end of February, and throughout March, the most predatorial of all birds silently courses through the night on a path of violent death.

With a wingspan of up to 54”, and a weight of up to 4 pounds for the females, this is a hunter, which does not seem to recognize it’s own limits. Reports of attacks on geese, wild turkeys, great blue herons, domestic dogs and cats, porcupines, skunks and even poisonous snakes, gives this bird the reputation of a fearless killer.

Great horned owls swallow their prey whole, when possible, or will dismember larger prey into smaller pieces before swallowing. Despite plucking feathers and clipping off wing tips with its beak, the owl still manages to swallow many indigestible pieces, such as bones, fur, and teeth, which its stomach conveniently compacts into “pellets”, regurgitated by the owl hours after a meal. These black balls of fur, bone and such, often found on the ground below a tree, provides a telling clue as to the most popular perches.

Another visual clue to watch for, is the presence of a large number of upset crows, which will violently attack Great Horned Owls, thereby ruining their stalwart attempts to remain unidentified during their daytime sleeps.

Thus, living in such close proximity to the marsh as I do, it is at night, under the noiseless, exceedingly sharp, watch of the Great Horned Owl, that I keep my cat indoors, and my 7lb dachshund on a short leash, in the hopes that those nervous rabbits stealing bird seed in the dark, will continue to remain the most common victim of this bold evening hunter.

Nevertheless, whether it is day or night, the snow blown marsh in the depth of winter, remains the domain of the silent winged killers, adapted in so many ways to be both effective and deadly.

 

 

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