Saskatchewan Birding with Trevor Herriot

I once was given a private tour behind the scenes in Parliament by Erik Spicer, the Parliamentary Librarian. On another occasion James Houston took me and some others through a special exhibition of Inuit art, recalling when he watched this piece being sculpted, and what his sculptor friend was chatting about as he worked on that other piece over there.

You have the same “behind the scenes” feeling when you set out with Trevor Herriot to look at birds in Saskatchewan. Trevor is not only a wonderful writer about nature, as well as many other things, as readers of his books know well. He is also an expert bird-watcher, so good that he has run a Regina radio show that helps callers to identify birds that they have stumbled across “with a yellow neck at the back.”

His own keen ears can identify different types of sparrow calls at a hundred paces, and his long-range camera skills are remarkable. I knew this because a couple of years ago he took me out from Regina to do some birding near Last Mountain Lake, and it was a very memorable morning.

So when Trevor suggested that Jane and I (who were staying in Regina with him and Karen and the family) head south with him and his birding friend Bob Luterbach to see what we could find en route to Weyburn, we were delighted.

It is as if the word spreads through the bird community that “Hey, Trevor Herriot’s here!” and they flock (so to speak) to see and be seen by this great celebrity birdwatcher. If you think that’s unlikely, look at the list birds we saw that morning, aided by the fact that a lush Prairie summer has lured uncommon visitors north from the parched American Plains states.

We saw White-faced Ibis (as in Egyptian pyramid art), Burrowing Owls (now endangered), Black Terns at the sloughs (and one angry Forster’s Tern), Baird’s Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Bobolink (with a yellow neck at the back), Chestnut-collared Longspur, and an amazing range of exhibitionist Bitterns, normally heard but never seen. All of these were first-time sightings for me and Jane.

Of course we also enjoyed watching Swainson’s and Red-tailed Hawks, not to mention the usual Mallards and Eared Grebes on the sloughs, the usual gangs of Redwinged Blackbirds and Cedar Waxwings, and a lone Upland Sandpiper. Wonderful!

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The Mae Wilson Theatre in Moose Jaw

Saturday was a busy day for me, with two readings (James Houston, then W.O. Mitchell) in the morning, then the show at the Mae Wilson Theatre on Main Street. This is a grand old Edwardian Theatre, with all the elaborate plaster trimmings, where touring performers like Sir Harry Lauder have appeared down through the ages.

I did my show (with the help of Eric the soundman, and Shane looking after the lights — and Jane up there in the booth) against a truly massive screen, perhaps 15 feet by 30 feet, which meant that the author caricatures were clear to everyone in the 300 person audience.

The audience was set up by a very generous introduction by the local author Bob Currie, and was notable for the fact that the gallant Jane, who knows the show very well, managed to handle the slide changes perfectly, so that the audience thought that my casual hand gestures automatically changed the screen.

One new part of the show was a special surprise for my good friend Terry Fallis, author of The Best-Laid Plans. I had got the splendid Tony Jenkins to do a caricature of Terry, knowing that he would be at Moose Jaw, although he had seen my show before.  (Terry is that kind of friend). I gave his picture the sub-title “Saint, Little Red Hen, and Prizewinner” and explained each part of the sub-title as Terry gurgled and blushed in the audience at his unexpected appearance in mid-show.

The audience seemed to like the show, and gave me a standing ovation. Later we had a Q and A session (“Did you have any authors you really didn’t like working with?” “They’re not in the book.”) A good day’s work, worth a relaxing spell in the Spa pool.

In Praise of W.O.

For my third reading in Moose Jaw, I saw no obvious link to my fellow reader. This was a very good thing. Jalal Barzanji’s book, The Man in Blue Pajamas, is a prison memoir of his days in Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad, before he and his family finally managed to make it to Canada. Happily, I had no similar stories to write about. So after praising the PEN Canada help that brought Jamal to Edmonton, I simply chose to honour Saskatchewan’s own W.O. Mitchell, from Weyburn, just east of Moose Jaw. Any reading that includes a selection of stories about the unforgettable W.O. is bound to be popular. This selection from my chapter on “W.O.Mitchell: Character and Creator of Characters 1914-1997” was no exception.  People love to hear about this guy.

Later, after a Regina visit with our friends Karen and Trevor Herriot (the subject of a separate birding blog) Jane and I made a pilgrimage to Weyburn. Armed with information provided by Kam and Megan at the library, we walked the streets of the little town, which now has roughly 10,000 people. As everyone who has read Who Has Seen the Wind knows, when W.O. was a boy the open prairie lay just a couple of blocks north of his house, now close to the centre of town.

Thanks to the library’s leaflet we found the Mitchell residence at 319 Sixth Street. Nobody was at home, so we took photos and were giving up and leaving when a car drew up outside. It was Jamieson, the son of the household, who kindly invited us in and showed us around the ground floor. It was just as we had hoped — all maroon furniture against a base of old oak panels — befitting a grand 1903 house that was the best in town. Even the bevelled glass windows and doors in the book cases and the Art Nouveau metal light fixtures spoke to the deliberate standard of excellence from that time.

We also saw the Knox Presbyterian Church that the Mitchells attended, but we did not get to see the inside stained glass, “all grapes and bloody.” We peeked in at the ancient Royal Hotel (once opposite the now-gone Railway Station, although Railway Avenue remains), and visited his father’s grave in the cemetery just south of town.

I must confess that there was no sign of the cheeky gopher at the edge of the tombstone (“O.S. Mitchell. Loved by all who knew him”) that so offended young Brian/Bill when the family solemnly visited the grave.

The Weyburn Museum (the “Soo Line Museum”) contained many photos of the town from W.O.’s boyhood days (“the litmus years”) and one of his father, and of his pharmacy. We roamed the banks of the Little Souris River, in search of the famous swimming hole where W.O. and the other boys swam naked. We even saw some descendants of the cat-tails that provoked such naughty behaviour from some of Sadie Rossdance’s girls.

In the evening, having walked the streets to absorb W.O.’s Weyburn, I gave my show in the Weyburn Public Library to about 15 appreciative local people, including the local author, my friend, Joanne Bannatyne-Cugnet (A Prairie Alphabet). As usual the show ended with a tribute to W.O., and in Weyburn that seemed only right.