Technology doesn't have to be something that divides us from nature. It can be a tool through which we can explore the natural world...

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Jackson Creek Oil Spill

Last Friday afternoon (along with concerns about more rain in the Rocky Mountain Foothills) came the news that there had been an oil spill (caused by a ruptured pipeline) along Jackson Creek - a tributary of my beloved Red Deer River. I got home from work and began to look for information in the internet. There were pictures of a huge oil slick on the Gleniffer Lake reservoir and various articles about the size of the spill, which seemed to settle at the 3000 barrel mark. Hour by hour you could see the propaganda machine at work as articles originally entitled "Another Alberta Pipeline Rupture" were spun into "Alberta rushes to Respond to Oil Spill" and "Oil Spill Contained". Alberta Premier Allison Redford made an appearance in Dickson with her new environment Minister in tow.
I decided that I would take a drive out to Jackson Creek and see if I could see anything for myself. I arrived at the Garrington Bridge which is the first bridge across the Red Deer River downstream of the mouth of Jackson Creek. I hadn't expected to see much and I didn't as the muddy waters of the Red Deer were high up on the riverbanks. I continued west and then turned south on Alberta's "Cowboy Trail" (Highway 22) towards Sundre. When I got to what I figured must be Jackson Creek, I looked at the waters and they seemed to be fine where they crossed the highway. I took the next township road east and then the next range road north to intersect the creek once again.
 A beautiful great blue heron flew up in right in front of me when I stopped to look at the creek. No matter how jaded I get, I still appreciated the impressive sight and I couldn't help smiling, until I remembered why I was there...
I took the next township road east and it took me parallel to Jackson Creek and into the valley of the Red Deer River. I remembered this place. Nine years ago I canoed along this section of the river. It was a special place. Small creeks and springs flowed into the river. Herons and other wading birds dotted the marshy west bank. There were muskrats and beavers in the waters and on the banks. Swallows and other songbirds were in the air as I hurtled along the river with a huge grin on my face no doubt. It was a wonderful evening and I promised myself that I would come back for further exploration one day.
I certainly hadn't thought that I would be returning under these circumstances. The road ended just short of the Red Deer River itself. I got out of the Jimmy and walked past a couple of oilfield vehicles to see a pond full of oil. I shot some video of the mess and after a few minutes a cameraman came along with a broadcast camera on a tripod with a man and woman. He appeared to be a stringer for CTV and he was setting up for a remote interview. I could hear bits and pieces as the man talking to the CTV reporter by cell phone.
 "...our entire way of life has been lost..."
He also told the interviewer that he himself worked in the oilfield business - for another pipeline company no less. It's Alberta after all and most of us owe at least some of our livelihoods to the oil industry, one way or another.
I scrawled my name and number on a makeshift business card. "Phil French - President Red Deer River Naturalists". I asked to interrupt for just a minute and introduced myself. I looked into the man's face as I handed him the card and I could see a deep sadness in his eyes. His face looked so drawn and tired that I hesitated for a moment, then I told him "I don't know what we can do, but if there's anything please don't hesitate to call us". The man and his wife both gave me an unexpected and appreciative smile and he thanked me. Perhaps he will call...
I spun the Jimmy around and headed for home as the rain began yet again. I thought about the pouring rain and all that oil and I felt a tight feeling in my stomach. Would this special place ever be the same? I thought about the faces of the beleaguered looking couple and my heart sank. Would their lives ever be the same? The rain began to pour harder as I continued east toward my home.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Winter Birds

" two seasons are ever the same and if you look closely you will see different things every winter"

Snowy owl on a power pole
A common winter sight

I admit it. Winter isn't my favorite time of the year. I often find myself depressed and fed up after days of cold and blowing snow. My eyes and heart long for the color and life of the other three seasons. One thing that brings me solace during these dark days is the birds at our feeders. So colorful and full of life, they always make me smile and often fill me with wonder at their hardiness.
My winter walks in the countryside are quiet affairs. One really has to look hard to see any living thing, but each small prairie town is an oasis of life during these cold months. You can hear the chatter of birds squabbling at the feeders and amongst the fruit trees and berry bushes. Periodically you can hear the twitter of bohemian waxwings as the raid the mountain ash and my decorative crab tree. Some years, the black-capped chickadees start their song almost immediately after Christmas. I always like to imagine they are singing "spring's coming! Spring’s coming!"
There are always woodpeckers to watch. The downy and larger hairy woodpeckers are constantly at the suet. It seems as though there is always one northern flicker that overwinters in my yard. It can vary from the red-shafted or yellow-shafted races, as we live in an overlap in their territories. Sometimes if you look closely you will find a hybrid. This year it is a red-shafted flicker. In early winter I can watch the upside-down antics of one of my favorite birds; the white-breasted nuthatch. I see them less in the latter half of the season.
One thing I have learned from living in the country is that some birds actually migrate here for the winter. Most Decembers bring the redpolls. The "common" come from the boreal forest and the "hoary" redpolls from the arctic tundra. The snow buntings also move onto the prairies. They never feed at my feeders, but can be seen in open fields in large flocks as I drive along the backroads and highways.
Female pine grosbeak
Another thing I have learned from watching nature over many years is that no two seasons are ever the same and if you look closely you will see different things every winter. The obvious example of that is the weather. Some winters (like the last one) are long and bitterly cold and then some are like this one and are very mild. Some years there are no redpolls. One year we had a junco overwinter at our feeders and on another year an American tree sparrow. One winter (much to my surprise) there was a female cardinal that returned several times to my feeders. Once I observed many short-eared owls in a frozen marsh near my home. It was 30 below zero and I filmed them as they dived into the snow hunting for rodents. This winter there have been a flock of pine grosbeaks at my feeders. One of them is a gaudy red adult male. The rest are females and immatures. It's the first time this has occurred in the eighteen years that I have lived here. 

Male pine grosbeak
I drive many miles as part of my employment and I usually see a few snowy owls over the course of the winter. This year I have seen them every time I go south onto the prairie near Three Hills or Drumheller, Alberta. It's a reminder that there are patterns in nature that are larger than the human experience. Wheels within wheels, the cycles of our planet may be revisited over and over with the coming of the seasons or just once in a generation or even longer.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Tale of a Cavity Nest

"I was the camouflaged predator... she was Arnold Schwarzenegger "
A couple of springs ago a friend of mine, Jim Potter called me and said "I've found a pileated woodpecker nest on my property, would you like to come by and shoot some video?" Of course I said yes. It would be perfect for a project Jim and I were working on entitled "Inside the Box" - a film predominately about cavity nesting ducks. He took me out to the woods and after I set up my video camera, he tapped an old dead poplar snag and from an elongated hole high up on the tree popped the head of the female. We made plans to return to the nest later.

Weeks later he called me and took me out to the pileated nest again. This time he left me there alone with my video camera and went back to his house. I was in full camouflage and I was careful to remain quiet and took care to never look directly at the nesting cavity, but instead looked down into my viewfinder. After a short wait one of the young stuck his head out of the hole and began to call. I could hear the parents returning its call from back in the woods. My patience paid off and I got some good footage of the comings and goings of both parents as they took turns feeding grubs to their three offspring on that hot summer afternoon.
Male Pileated Woodpecker feeds offspring (from video)

Even though I remained silent and was careful not to reveal myself, I could tell that the wary birds knew something was up. They were careful not to take their beady eyes off of me. After the final time the female fed her young she flew just to my right. I heard the rustle of leaves to my immediate right. I thought she might have landed in a tree, but I didn't dare look - I just waited quietly, listening. After a long while, I decided that I had enough footage anyway and that I would have a look and see if the mother woodpecker was sitting there. I turned to my right and... It reminded me of a scene from the movie "Predator". I was the camouflaged predator... and the woodpecker...  she was Arnold Schwarzenegger staring back at me - her beak several inches from my nose! We both started and the bird turned inside out and flew off into the woods. It was one of those things I will never forget.
Goldeneye duck (photo courtesy Myrna Pearman)

In my film I noted that "perhaps next year a goldeneye duck will use the cavity for its nest". Sure enough the very next summer that's exactly what happened. Jim invited me out there again, but by the time I managed to get there the ducks were gone. They had fledged. Instead (to our surprise) the third inhabitant of the cavity emerged - a northern flying squirrel. Last weekend Jim took a few of us for a walk across the ice of his frozen ponds to check the old dead poplar tree once again. This time three flying squirrels poked their faces out of the hole. Jim told us that while they didn't hibernate, they were relatively inactive during the winter and would stay together in tree cavities for warmth. They are fairly common in Alberta, but are not often seen because they are nocturnal.

Flying Squirrels in winter (from video)
I think this procession of birds and mammals illustrates just how precious natural cavities are to these wild creatures.

Is there a moral to this story? A friend and neighbor of mine, Gordon Green has been farming the country along the edge of Alberta's Red Deer River Valley for most of his long life. He tells his grandchildren that if they want to be farmers they should always remember to "leave some room for God's creatures".  I couldn't say it any better than that.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Digital Golden Age - building a Digital Editing Computer (Part1)

Built to create - the computer is your canvas

It's a digital golden age! If you have a creative bone in your body, what are you waiting for?  Baby-boomers throw out your old film cameras and tape recorders and stop bitching about how much better film and analog was than digital. Unless your name is David Lean or George Martin, I don't wanna hear about it. There are only so many geniuses about. Dig out your old photo albums and you'll see what I mean. Attention parents! No, your kid isn't some kind of computer genius...and no, being really good at "Rock Band" doesn't mean he or she should be applying to Julliard. Today's "computer savvy" is yesterday's "good with his hands". Younger types, get your noses out of your smart phones and hands off your gaming consoles long enough to learn some useful digital (and life) skills... Remove your ear buds and have a look around. There I've said it! That's my rant for today... let's all move on. It's a harsh reality when examined in the semi-sober light of day.
You might have guessed this is the technology side of my blog. No pretty pictures of birdies or lovely landscapes here. Non-techies please bear with me. I put my message first so you can decide if you want to read on. There are things that the average person has access to these days that were only a dream a few years ago... Whenever I get a chance to sit down at my computer there is a whole world available to me which is only limited by my willingness to learn, work and of course by my creativity. You might be able to tell by the intermittent nature of my blog, but I hardly know which way to turn some days. I could be composing and recording music, organizing and editing photos, editing video or writing scripts or blogs. There never seems to be enough time...
I'm not much of a winter person. I do get out in nature during the winter, but only occasionally for walks in the woods and the odd day trips.  One of the ideas behind getting involved in videography was that I would shoot in the warmer months and edit during the colder days of winter. Perhaps the reality of that is best left for another blog, but suffice to say that producing any video is divided between field and studio work. What follows is a discussion about the equipment and techniques I use in the studio. It is in no way an endorsement of any particular software or hardware. Long winded technical discussions are best left for the online discussion groups that I have learned so much from over the years.  I will try and keep things simple.
Acronyms can drive me crazy sometimes. They are convenient, but some people tend to spew them out without understanding what they really mean. Even techies (who do understand their meaning) sometimes use them with little regard of their audience and their meaning becomes lost. The first one I will have to use is NLE (non-linear editing system). Video has a beginning middle and end, but these days we don't have to put them together in any particular way or order. That's the non-linear bit! Like almost anything these days, if you want to achieve this you will need a computer.
My first editing suite was an old blue and white G3 Mac with the first version of Final Cut Pro. I used it to make my first short video entitled "The Birds of Winter" in little over 3 months after I acquired it. FCP was a very intuitive software and within hours I found myself editing. It was great at the time, but I realized if I was going to produce anything longer than a few minutes, I was going to have to have to upgrade. I certainly don't want to get involved in the whole Mac verses PC debate, but I will leave you with this advice - if you have more money than technical know-how, get a top-of-the-line Mac with "Final Cut Pro" software suite and start editing. For the rest of us read below...
If you want a serious editing suite of any kind, my advice is this; build the best computer that you can afford. I have gone the PC/ Windows route mostly due to budget, flexibility and familiarity. Here's what I am using at this time and some of the thinking behind it:

The glowing red heart of my computer
 the Ruby Orb heat-sink doesn't just look cool

Intel quad core processor and mother board - I didn't go with an i7 processor (it was far too expensive at the time) though I would now...
8 gigabytes of RAM - use the 64-bit version of Windows 7 to take advantage of the extra RAM
3 internal SATA hard drives totaling 3.5 terabytes of storage (one system drive and two data drives) - Have at least 2 physical drives and use one for your video projects. You will need tons of storage especially now with high definition video... Luckily HDD's are cheap these days!
Blue -Ray burner - it's for high def!
NVidia video board (HDMI) - you don't need to buy the latest - last year's model will be much cheaper! I see the latest version of my editing software will finally take advantage of the video card. This was not the case in the past...
Dual 1080P 16:9 monitors - you need lots of desktop space for editing (one day I will have at least 3 monitors)
 Creative sound card - this is where I truly would like to upgrade in the future, but it does the job and allows me to do surround sound editing and track-at-a-time stereo recording
Logitech Dolby 5.1 surround audio system - see above...

There is plenty of outboard gear as well:

A small mixing board and external HDD's
and bass pre-amp
External HDD's for extra storage, portability and backing up your work (this is mandatory!!!)
A small mixing board - for recording narration, musical instruments and Foley
Sony SxS memory card reader/writer - for aquiring video
42" video flat screen LCD monitor - for previewing video (along with 7.1 surround system)
Various guitars, pre-amps and pedals
Midi controller
Microphones and Headphones
Of course, hardware is only the beginning!

Next time part 2 - Software