Friday, September 15, 2017

For a Friend

On the afternoon of September 11, 2017, the world lost our friend, birding comrade and free spirit par excellence, Liis Veelma. I would like to celebrate her life with a few shared memories.

I will begin with a photo of Liis. I am especially fond of this photo that Youn-Young took of Liis at one of my Nature Manitoba workshops. I think it captures her intelligence and her ever-inquisitive nature. Born in Estonia in 1940, Liis's early childhood was spent in refugee camps until her family was able to make Canada home. Liis was obviously shaped by those childhood experiences and always maintained a strong interest in all things culturally and linguistically Estonian; however, she also embraced Canada with zeal and birded this country from coast to coast to coast.

For the simple reason that I remember the great joy on Liis's face at the time, I will start the bird photos with these young Burrowing Owls. There were eight wee-uns in total and Liis was over the moon to see them. The decline of this charismatic owl in the Canadian prairies has been dire and there are precious few to be found in Manitoba today. Liis's face was pressed against the window frame of the car as she lapped up the antics of these little angels around their burrow.

There is nothing Liis loved more than a birding trip. Such was her free spirit that she could get in the car on a whim and end up hundreds of miles away. She also concocted some wonderful long-weekend trips, although looking back I still don't quite know how we put all those miles behind us. In April 2005, Liis, Adam and I made a trip to Grasslands National Park for a few prairie target birds, the most sought-after being the Endangered Greater Sage-Grouse. If you know Liis, you will not be surprised to learn that we took turns driving through the night and arrived only an hour or so before dawn, in perfect time to witness the magic of the dance of one of the prairies finest spectacles!

After being woken to the bizarre popping noises and watching the breathtaking display, we kept on birding and soon found Burrowing Owls, Long-billed Curlews, McCown's Longspur and other grassland species. The weekend, however, took a most unexpected turn when Liis and Adam put their heads together later that day. Adam got Liis's attention when he mentioned having heard of a site for Mountain Plover just south of the border. Before I knew what hit me, Adam was at a pay phone getting information from a generous U.S birder and Liis was studying the map. Liis never needed an excuse to just go for a drive, but what better excuse than a Mountain Plover! So, there we were, explaining ourselves to the border guards and then wending our way in Liis's little red car down some salty road that few would call a road. As dusk was fast approaching, we split up to search and by an amazing stroke of luck I found the plover on a patch of bare ground. I still remember the anxious wait as Liis and Adam finally responded to my signals and came sneaking quietly over to enjoy the tremendous sight:

Not to rest on our laurels, in May of the same year, we set out on an even crazier mission - the great Michigan loop! In one long weekend we drove across the upper Michigan Peninsula then south and around Lake Michigan and back to Winnipeg. One again, we drove through the night, this time to be in place for the Kirtland's Warbler tour in the morning. The all-nighter was soon forgotten though when the Kirtland's put on a show.

In addition to the Kirtland's Warbler, we sought and found other species rarely seen in Manitoba such as Prothonotary Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Henslow's Sparrow, Dickcissel, and this magnificent Cerulean Warbler:

2006 was Liis's "Enjoy Manitoba Birds" year.  She had just retired and would try a big year in the province, something few if any birders had really tried before. It was great fun for the whole Manitoba birding community because Liis's determination was contagious. We all tried to help wherever we could and everyone got involved in some little way... it felt like a community big year with Liis at the helm!

It turned out Liis picked the right year because May saw a veritable slough of rarities, including some provincial firsts. Here are a few of the special birds that graced her list (the ones that I have photos of because we saw together), starting with this Prothonotary Warbler in early May at FortWhyte Alive:

This Eurasian Wigeon at Oak Hammock Marsh:

This immature Whooping Crane that over-summered near St. Adolphe to the absolute delight of so many:

Manitoba's first ever Broad-tailed hummingbird, courtesy of the Braden family and their feeders, had Liis reaching for her car keys at the speed of sound:

A little later in May there was a report of a Black-necked Stilt. Liis called me and asked if I wanted to go chase it (them as it turns out). Any chance to bird Whitewater Lake was too good to pass up so off we sped looking for one more for her year list... and we were rewarded!

Prairie Falcon is a bird that is never guaranteed in Manitoba so when this one came slicing through the cloud as Jo, Liis and I walked around the cells at Oak Hammock Marsh on a blustery fall day, Liis almost allowed herself a little jig!

Even after her big year, for Liis, there was always the thrill of the chase too and the delight of a new bird. This Curve-billed Thrasher near Big Whiteshell Lake was one of those.

After that there were many other great days birding and simple pleasures like watching a Great Gray Owl capture a meadow vole. Sometimes though, it is not the finest view or even the rarest bird that lodges most firmly in memory. On a winter day with a low "ceiling" (as the bush pilots say), as the fog seemed to crystallise on the trees, a small group of friends took a stroll down a skidoo trail along the edge of the wondrous boreal forest and were greeted by this magnificent Great Gray Owl, at one with his/her snag. A simple silence shared and, most definitely, appreciated!

There were many other discoveries and near-misses too, like the Hooded Warbler we almost found together. We were at Spirit Rock near Grand Beach. I caught a glimpse of a yellow warbler with white in the outer tail. I tried to signal to Liis who was just ahead of me, around a very slight bend in the trail. She turned and asked me if I had seen "that yellow warbler with a smudge over the top of its head"... her phrase just about floored me and we quickly realised, putting our two halves together, that we had just seen a Hooded Warbler, top and tail. We never found the bird again and we decided that the most prudent was to put it down as a near miss. Oddly enough, that image of "half a Hoodie" is more vivid than the many stunning adult males I have since observed in the south. I know that Liis remembered it vividly too because she periodically asked me if maybe we should count it, although she certainly knew that I was too stubborn for that.

I don't wish to dwell on the last 7 months of her life, spent in hospital battling cancer and yet still, always, concocting schemes and adventures in the making. She would delight in detail of future far-flung birding trips to place like Newfoundland, or insane jaunts to Thunder Bay for a Finnish meal then back in time for the symphony. Liis was certainly true to her free spirit at every moment, even as the cancers slowly robbed her of the things she valued most: her freedom and her independence. In preparation for various tests in the hospital, Liis was told to choose an image to focus on. She asked me if I could share a photo of a "first-year female Mourning Warbler just about to embark upon migration". It was such a specific request but, knowing Liis, I could tell there was symbolism brewing in her active imagination. I made an 8"x10" print of the photo below for her. It stayed above her hospital bed for many months thereafter. I believe for Liis that the concept of migration was alive with personal nuance and meaning, perhaps a symbol of her very own journey. 

Though the hospital experience was extremely hard on Liis, she never lost her spark. Even near the very end as her life drifted into the shadowy space between sleep and dream, Liis's personality shone through. I tried to get her attention one last time. I was not even sure if she could hear me then, though Linda and Youn-Young encouraged me to try. Though she only occasionally opened her eyes and moved her arms, her mumbled reply of "What??" when I called her name brought a smile and even a little chuckle. In that moment, her simple reaction seemed to encapsulate the feisty woman she was, the spirited soul she remained.

In tribute and for posterity, here is Liis's "Enjoy Manitoba Birds" year list from 2006:

1. Greater White-fronted Goose
2. Snow Goose
3. Ross's Goose
4. Cackling Goose
5. Canada Goose
6. Trumpeter Swan
7. Tundra Swan
8. Wood Duck
9. Gadwall
10. Eurasian Wigeon
11. American Wigeon
12. American Black Duck
13. Mallard
14. Blue-winged Teal
15. Northern Shoveler
16. Northern Pintail
17. Green-winged Teal
18. Canvasback
19. Redhead
20. Ring-necked Duck
21. Greater Scaup
22. Lesser Scaup
23. Common Eider
24. Harlequin Duck
25. Surf Scoter
26. White-winged Scoter
27. Black Scoter
28. Long-tailed Duck
29. Bufflehead
30. Common Goldeneye
31. Hooded Merganser
32. Common Merganser
33. Red-breasted Merganser
34. Ruddy Duck
35. Gray Partridge
36. Ring-necked Pheasant
37. Ruffed Grouse
38. Spruce Grouse
39. Willow Ptarmigan
40. Sharp-tailed Grouse
41. Wild Turkey
42. Red-throated Loon
43. Pacific Loon
44. Common Loon
45. Pied-billed Grebe
46. Horned Grebe
47. Red-necked Grebe
48. Eared Grebe
49. Western Grebe
50. Clark's Grebe
51. American White Pelican
52. Double-crested Cormorant
53. American Bittern
54. Least Bittern
55. Great Blue Heron
56. Great Egret
57. Snowy Egret
58. Little Blue Heron
59. Tricolored Heron
60. Cattle Egret
61. Black-crowned Night-Heron
62. Yellow-crowned Night Heron
63. Glossy Ibis
64. White-faced Ibis
65. Turkey Vulture
66. Osprey
67. Bald Eagle
68. Northern Harrier
69. Sharp-shinned Hawk
70. Cooper's Hawk
71. Northern Goshawk
72. Broad-winged Hawk
73. Swainson's Hawk
74. Red-tailed Hawk
75. Ferruginous Hawk
76. Rough-legged Hawk
77. Golden Eagle
78. American Kestrel
79. Merlin
80. Gyrfalcon
81. Peregrine Falcon
82. Prairie Falcon
83. Yellow Rail
84. Virginia Rail
85. Sora
86. American Coot
87. Sandhill Crane
88. Whooping Crane
89. Black-bellied Plover
90. American Golden-Plover
91. Semipalmated Plover
92. Piping Plover
93. Killdeer
94. Black-necked Stilt
95. American Avocet
96. Greater Yellowlegs
97. Lesser Yellowlegs
98. Solitary Sandpiper
99. Willet
100. Spotted Sandpiper
101. Upland Sandpiper
102. Whimbrel
103. Hudsonian Godwit
104. Marbled Godwit
105. Ruddy Turnstone
106. Sanderling
107. Semipalmated Sandpiper
108. Least Sandpiper
109. White-rumped Sandpiper
110. Baird's Sandpiper
111. Pectoral Sandpiper
112. Dunlin
113. Stilt Sandpiper
114. Short-billed Dowitcher
115. Long-billed Dowitcher
116. Wilson's Snipe
117. American Woodcock
118. Wilson's Phalarope
119. Red-necked Phalarope
120. Parasitic Jaeger
121. Franklin's Gull
122. Little Gull
123. Bonaparte's Gull
124. Ring-billed Gull
125. California Gull
126. Herring Gull
127. Thayer's Gull
128. Glaucous Gull
129. Great Black-backed Gull
130. Caspian Tern
131. Common Tern
132. Arctic Tern
133. Forster's Tern
134. Black Tern
135. Rock Pigeon
136. Eurasian Collared-Dove
137. Mourning Dove
138. Black-billed Cuckoo
139. Yellow-billed Cuckoo
140. Eastern Screech-Owl
141. Great Horned Owl
142. Snowy Owl
143. Northern Hawk Owl
144. Burrowing Owl
145. Barred Owl
146. Great Gray Owl
147. Long-eared Owl
148. Short-eared Owl
149. Boreal Owl
150. Northern Saw-whet Owl
151. Common Nighthawk
152. Whip-poor-will
153. Chimney Swift
154. Broad-tailed Hummingbird
155. Ruby-throated Hummingbird
156. Belted Kingfisher
157. Red-headed Woodpecker
158. Red-bellied Woodpecker
159. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker
160. Downy Woodpecker
161. Hairy Woodpecker
162. American Three-toed Woodpecker
163. Black-backed Woodpecker
164. Northern Flicker
165. Pileated Woodpecker
166. Olive-sided Flycatcher
167. Western Wood-Pewee
168. Eastern Wood-Pewee
169. Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
170. Alder Flycatcher
171. Willow Flycatcher
172. Least Flycatcher
173. Eastern Phoebe
174. Say's Phoebe
175. Great Crested Flycatcher
176. Western Kingbird
177. Eastern Kingbird
178. Loggerhead Shrike
179. Northern Shrike
180. Yellow-throated Vireo
181. Blue-headed Vireo
182. Warbling Vireo
183. Philadelphia Vireo
184. Red-eyed Vireo
185. Gray Jay
186. Blue Jay
187. Black-billed Magpie
188. American Crow
189. Common Raven
190. Horned Lark
191. Purple Martin
192. Tree Swallow
193. Northern Rough-winged Swallow
194. Bank Swallow
195. Cliff Swallow
196. Barn Swallow
197. Black-capped Chickadee
198. Boreal Chickadee
199. Red-breasted Nuthatch
200. White-breasted Nuthatch
201. Brown Creeper
202. Carolina Wren
203. House Wren
204. Winter Wren
205. Sedge Wren
206. Marsh Wren
207. Golden-crowned Kinglet
208. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
209. Eastern Bluebird
210. Mountain Bluebird
211. Townsend's Solitaire
212. Veery
213. Gray-cheeked Thrush
214. Swainson's Thrush
215. Hermit Thrush
216. American Robin
217. Varied Thrush
218. Gray Catbird
219. Northern Mockingbird
220. Brown Thrasher
221. European Starling
222. American Pipit
223. Sprague's Pipit
224. Bohemian Waxwing
225. Cedar Waxwing
226. Golden-winged Warbler
227. Tennessee Warbler
228. Orange-crowned Warbler
229. Nashville Warbler
230. Northern Parula
231. Yellow Warbler
232. Chestnut-sided Warbler
233. Magnolia Warbler
234. Cape May Warbler
235. Yellow-rumped Warbler
236. Black-throated Green Warbler
237. Blackburnian Warbler
238. Pine Warbler
239. Palm Warbler
240. Bay-breasted Warbler
241. Blackpoll Warbler
242. Black-and-white Warbler
243. American Redstart
244. Prothonotary Warbler
245. Ovenbird
246. Northern Waterthrush
247. Connecticut Warbler
248. Mourning Warbler
249. Common Yellowthroat
250. Wilson's Warbler
251. Canada Warbler
252. Scarlet Tanager
253. Eastern Towhee
254. Spotted Towhee
255. American Tree Sparrow
256. Chipping Sparrow
257. Clay-colored Sparrow
258. Vesper Sparrow
259. Lark Sparrow
260. Savannah Sparrow
261. Grasshopper Sparrow
262. Baird's Sparrow
263. Le Conte's Sparrow
264. Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow
265. Fox Sparrow
266. Song Sparrow
267. Lincoln's Sparrow
268. Swamp Sparrow
269. White-throated Sparrow
270. Harris's Sparrow
271. White-crowned Sparrow
272. Dark-eyed Junco
273. Lapland Longspur
274. Smith's Longspur
275. Chestnut-collared Longspur
276. Snow Bunting
277. Northern Cardinal
278. Black-headed Grosbeak
279. Rose-breasted Grosbeak
280. Indigo Bunting
281. Dickcissel
282. Bobolink
283. Red-winged Blackbird
284. Eastern Meadowlark
285. Western Meadowlark
286. Yellow-headed Blackbird
287. Rusty Blackbird
288. Brewer's Blackbird
289. Common Grackle
290. Brown-headed Cowbird
291. Orchard Oriole
292. Baltimore Oriole
293. Pine Grosbeak
294. Purple Finch
295. House Finch
296. Red Crossbill
297. White-winged Crossbill
298. Common Redpoll
299. Hoary Redpoll
300. Pine Siskin
301. American Goldfinch
302. Evening Grosbeak
303. House Sparrow

Long may you run Liis; you will be missed!

Christian (Winnipeg, 2017-09-14)


  1. Beautiful tribute to an absolutely amazing individual.

  2. Thank you for telling Liis's story in such a wonderful way Chris. To my dismay, I only met and visited with her once when we were both in Pinawa for the Painted Redstart and that was only last year! Meeting her was a priviledge.

  3. Wonderful tribute. My sister-in-law worked with Liis at Great West Life and when she was planning her retirement, my sister-in-law asked if I thought the Birds of Manitoba book would be a good retirement gift. I said, knowing Liis, that there was a very good chance that she already possessed that book. She chuckled and told me that Liis would spend her whole lunch hour looking out the window and advising anyone who would listen what birds were out there. Liis also volunteered at the office for a few years and we looked forward to the days she was coming in as her personality was infectious. I like to think that she is still working on her list!


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