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May 7 and the ice is gone – from most lakes. There’s still ice on the big, deep lake trout lakes and one can still see the odd patch of snow/ice in the bush. Last night it was -80 C, so it’s not as if the blossoms are in bloom. Fact is the pussy willows have only just begun to emerge. No green sheen in the forest yet.

At least the pond in front of the house has been ice-free for several days, albeit most mornings there is a bit of ice along the edges. But that quickly melts off and is long gone by the afternoon.

When there was a mix of open water and ice on the pond, the ducks were in active courtship. The hooded mergansers in particular were really going at it. Lots of fighting and displaying and ‘gronking’, which is the sound of their mating call.

There were also wood ducks, green-winged teal, ringnecks, common mergansers and of course mallards. Very early, a pair of Canada geese built their nest on the beaver house and we expect the goslings will be hatching any day now.

I put up a blind to photograph from and for a few days there was a lot of action for me to try and capture. However, things have slowed down considerably and lately it’s mostly just a group of three drake mallards that come by the blind. Maybe things will pick up once the nights get a bit warmer and things start to green up.

In addition to the waterfowl, there’s been a steady stream of other migrants. Of special note was a pair of willets (first I’ve ever seen) and several rusty blackbirds. And the tree swallows are back – all three nest boxes look to be claimed.

Some deer did make it through the winter. In addition to the three that were almost daily visitors for months, there have been of late a couple of others coming to nibble at greenery on the lawn. Yesterday we noticed a large paw print of a bear on the road only a couple of hundred meters from the house. Maybe it’s the big brown one I saw last spring.

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Also yesterday, in the morning, we saw from the house a very fluffy, orangy red fox catching some rays. A couple of weeks ago, just when the ice was starting to melt, a coyote – the first we’ve seen on our property –showed up one day, but we haven’t seen it since. Best of all, I haven’t seen a timber wolf for several weeks.

There seems to be good numbers of ruffed grouse as we hear many drumming, not just on our property but pretty much wherever we have been. Neva seems to find one or two to flush on her daily walk, which keeps her happy. I like grouse a lot, so seeing and hearing grouse every day is a good thing.

Lil and I haven’t seen a single moose track anywhere we’ve been. Granted, we’ve not been travelling far and wide, but in years gone by it was common to see moose tracks on our property and here and there on the roads near town. Those days are long gone.

The MNRF released its moose tag quota allocations for the 2019 hunt and, unbelievably, is planning on issuing more cow tags than bull tags across the province as a whole. This despite the fact moose numbers continue to decline and in most WMUs, moose populations are well below their targets. In the WMU Lil and I hunt (06), only 1 tag was issued – for a cow. It seems to me this is complete lunacy, but it’s also what I’ve come to expect from an outfit where I worked for more than 30 years. I’m just glad I don’t work there any more – it’s hard enough admitting it’s where I had a career. I just shake my head.

Our house is oriented to face due south. The deck is open, but covered, so it’s more like an open porch.  Built into an old sandpit on a hillside the deck is about 3m from the ground, which slopes down to the pond, which the house overlooks. The best view the house offers is from the deck. From the deck, you get to see a lot that goes on in and around the pond.

But if you are inside the house, you still get to see stuff when you are looking out a window.

This year, one thing we have watched happen from the deck and through the windows of the house is game bird production. Mostly high numbers of chicks hatched, but also mostly poor success in keeping a brood together and alive.

There were many different species of waterfowl that hatched out a clutch of chicks that we saw on the pond, from the house, during their first days of life. We’ve seen a brood of grebes, wood ducks, hooded mergansers, mallards and Canada geese. There was a single brood from each of those species; the young mallard ducklings showed up most recently, so maybe the hatching season isn’t over yet, but I think it’s getting late in the breeding season. There was a pair of green-winged teal on the pond for weeks early in the season, but we never saw them with chicks and the adults are now elsewhere. Ring-necks hung around for a while, but although they, like the teal, have nested here in the past, we don’t think they tried nesting here this year.

We’ve also seen a little flock of ruffed grouse scurry by the front of the deck a couple of times.

We have counted close to 40 young, all broods and species (ducks and grouse) combined. Quite a few, I think.

But from there, it seems to have been a downhill slide for chick survival. All the Canada geese goslings are dead. One of the young grebes appears to have disappeared.  Lately, we have seen only two of the hooded merganser ducklings with their mom – the brood started out with 11. We haven’t seen the wood ducks for many days now; there were a couple of orphans on the pond for a couple of days, but those too have now disappeared.  We think the mallards are still more or less intact. The grouse brood was small the both times we saw them.

It made me think about how what happens at the micro level, may or may not reflect what goes on at the macro level. Or vice versa. What we’ve observed is moderate to good hatching success for some, but apparently not too stellar when it comes to survival.

What we saw in and around our pond – the outlook from the house – was a good lesson in how dramatic the result at the macro level could be. If survival on ponds like ours is similar over a wide area, then the fall outlook for game birds might be grim. On the other hand, if hatching success was similar, but survival was better than on our pond, then the game bird outlook for this fall could be quite rosy.  Or, results could be .  . . mixed.

Of note is that during some forest travelling, I have been seeing quite a few ruffed grouse broods. But the number of chicks in all the flocks I’ve seen is on the small side. But a lot of small flocks could still mean a good fall hunt for ruffies. That’s where I’m leaning, as there did seem to be good numbers of adult grouse this spring, and I did hear a lot of drumming.

In the meantime, it’s time to do a bit of fishing and concentrate on berry picking. Around the house, the Saskatoons, blueberries and raspberries are quite good, right now. It is also looking good for choke cherries, which have just started to ripen. It doesn’t look like there’s going to be a bumper crop of pin cherries or Canada plums, which, like the choke cherries, are only beginning to ripen.

Further afield, the wild berry crop looks to be . .  . mixed.

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Lil and I applied for a moose tag the other day. The chances of getting a tag look slim. In Kenora District, where we live, the 3 WMUs have a combined quota of 3 bull moose, one for each WMU. There are more tags to the east, but because of that – and it isn’t like there are a whole bunch of tags – the demand still far outstrips the supply.

It still seems weird to me that only 1 bull tag (no cow tags) is allocated in those WMU’s, but there is a two week calf season with no quota on the number of calves hunters can take. And 1 tag sounds fishy to me. Even if the population was only 10 moose, taking 1 bull would still allow the population to grow, and I know, and the MNRF knows, there’s more than 100 moose in WMU 6.

Of course, Aboriginals, including Métis, have no seasons or limits on moose, or anything else for that matter. So licensed hunters are the ones that suffer, and it may not do the moose population any good, depending on what happens with the native harvest. It’s no way to manage wildlife.

It also seems to contradict our Prime Minister, who proudly says “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian”.  Err, not really, not when it comes to rights and freedoms, which is what that mantra is supposedly all about.

Oh well, not much I can do about that. Sadly, the number of people who want to address the issue is small in this country. Someday it’s going to be a big issue and resolving it won’t be pretty.

Meanwhile, Lil and I have been entertained by the ducks in the beaver pond out front of the house. Most days there are buffleheads, ring-necks, mallards, green-winged teal, wood ducks and hooded mergansers there, in addition to a pair of nesting Canada geese. No sign of the blue-winged teal yet. And the only shore birds I’ve seen are a solitary sandpiper and a couple of common snipe (and we’ve heard, of course, a number of peenting woodcock). But it’s early yet, so we’re sure to see some other species in the weeks to come.

A peregrine took a run at the pigeons that frequent the yard the other day, but didn’t appear to get one.

Oh, and the timber wolves are still around.

Lil was outside when the dogs started barking like craze, so she walked down to the end of the driveway – less than 100 meters – and saw some fresh wolf tracks on the road. Soon, the dogs were barking like crazy again, and when she checked, saw another set of wolf tracks. That’s when she called me to have a look.

We went out to the road and were looking at the tracks and it seemed they had been chasing a deer. I looked up and exclaimed –“There’s a wolf now!” It crossed the hydro line and walked out on the road, and then another one came out on the road a bit behind. They didn’t seem to be bothered by us; ambling off slowly when we yelled at them.

A couple of days later some deer showed up and one had a huge patch of fur missing off its side with noticeable scabbing. We thought the wolves would get it that night, but it’s been around for several days now. Some of the deer that were almost daily visitors during the winter months have disappeared, though. Of course, that doesn’t mean the wolves got them – they could just be dispersed since it’s almost fawning time.

Still no sign of moose.

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We’re nearing the end of August, which means the short northern summer is waning. Still, it’s been warm; hot even, on some days. Recently, a few nights were cool and by morning there was extensive fog. Before noon, the fog was burnt off.

Looking back, the non-sledding season was a book of contrasts. Late April and early May started off dry, but soon the rains came. And came. It rained a lot in June and July and while August hasn’t been quite as wet, rains have still been a feature of the weekly weather. It’s also been a warm summer (summer warm, winter cold; who’d have guessed?) and with all the rain, it’s been humid. As such, the biting insects (mosquitoes, black flies and various species of tabanids [e.g., deer flies and what we call ankle biters]) have been out in force all summer. The flies are still making a pest of themselves.

With all the rain, water levels rose during the summer and the once-promising crop of wild rice was drowned out.

It’s also been a pretty wet year over much of the Canadian prairies, although overall, conditions in the continental west were, apparently, drier (at least to begin with, just like here) and for ducks, habitat conditions ‘deteriorated’. Still, according to Ducks Unlimited, “duck numbers in the survey area are statistically similar to last year and remain steady”.

When I first started heading west to hunt, sometime in the 1980’s, it was, in the words of some former colleagues, “drier than a popcorn fart”.  Duck populations were close to or at all-time lows.

That was back in the days when we were all worried about a new ice age. Then, global warming hysteria took over and the models have been predicting “hotter and drier”. However, rains and snows have instead steadily recharged the prairie potholes over the past couple of decades and despite continued ditching and draining (burning, too), duck populations have surged.

According to DU:

“Total populations were estimated at 48.4 million breeding ducks in the traditional survey area, which is 38 percent above the 1955-2015 long-term average. Last year’s estimate was 49.5 million birds. The projected mallard fall flight index is 13.5 million birds, similar to the 2015 estimate of 13.8 million.”

On another note, I’ve seen some decent sized flocks of ruffed grouse of late, so maybe there’s been good brood survival despite the wet. Good thing it wasn’t ‘cold’.

And despite what some of the local game agencies have been saying, I don’t think it’s going to be much of a deer hunt this fall. Yesterday, Lil and I were out picking blueberries – still some good berries on the bushes, but not for long – and didn’t see a single deer track. A few years ago the areas we were in had deer aplenty. So while last winter was relatively mild, wolf numbers remain high (a situation the Provincial wolf scientist has acknowledged) and have no doubt continued to put downward pressure on the deer population.

And neither Lil nor I drew the single adult moose tag available in the Wildlife Management Unit we like to hunt. Out of curiosity, we checked out a tiny bit of our favourite ‘moose spot’ yesterday and did see sign of at least three different moose. Oh well, maybe next year.

Meanwhile, I’m off to the North American Moose Conference in Brandon, Manitoba in a couple of weeks. I’ll be doing a presentation there and then soon after that, will be off on a fly-in moose hunt in northern Manitoba.

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The other day I looked out on the pond and there were two ducks sitting on a log beside a drake mallard. They had a lot of white on them and at first I thought they might be domestic mallards from a nearby farm. But they weren’t.

I had to run upstairs to get a bird book as I didn’t recognize the birds, having never seen this particular species before in full breeding plumage. So another new species recorded on our pond! They were, by the way, northern shovelers, a duck that’s apparently abundant during the breeding season in the prairies, the Yukon and Alaska.

Although Kenora is only a couple of hundred kilometers for the eastern edge of the prairie ecosystem, we don’t see a lot of what is in that biome, or only rarely.So It was great to see the shovelers, even though they didn’t hang around for too long. My bird guide indicates they migrate through and breed in the area, but I haven’t met anyone who has ever run across a nest or a young brood of shovelers here. I’ve met people who have seen theme here on occassion, mostly in the spring.

They do resemble a mallard, except for a bit more white and the extended, black bill that sort of looks like it was squashed in an early stage of development with a hammer.

Given its large, spatula shaped bill – some refer to them as ‘spoonbills’ – it didn’t surprise me when I read that it “has the most unusual feeding habits of any duck.”  If has a fondness for phytoplankton as well as zooplankton, sometimes feeding on the surface in deep water in lakes devoid of aquatic vegetation. To strain for plankton, water is ingested at the tip of the bill then jetted out at the base. Given it likes plankton, it’s no wonder they are known to gather in large numbers on sewage lagoons. Maybe that’s one of the reasons they aren’t exactly held in high esteem as table fare . . .

There’s not a lot of plankton in our pond, especially at this time of year, but there is a lot of insect life, the likes of which makes up about a quarter of the shovelers diet. As animal life is high in protein, it makes sense this species might stop in at our pond for a quick, nutritious meal before moving on. Seeing these birds were on our pond in late May, it’s likely they were drakes that had abandoned their mates; drake shovelers leave their mates as early as the first day she begins to incubate, although some stick it out until the eggs are hatched. In nearby Manitoba, shovelers usually commence nesting in early May.

By the way, the sora rails have also returned to the pond. Hopefully the summer and fall will bring some other species I haven’t yet seen from the deck. I’ll keep you posted.

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Compared to the last couple of years, spring came early this year. Not real early, maybe just a bit earlier than normal, although April was below average in terms of temperature. El Nino has apparently dissipated and the Pacific Ocean is cooling down, so one is to assume weather patterns will move back towards ‘normal’, whatever that is.

Whatever, it’s dry now as there has not been much rain, although some is forecast in the days ahead. Most of Canada from the Great Lakes west to the mountains is dry; forest fires, including the big one at Fort Mac, are breaking out all over. There’s a lot of talk that it’s part of the climate change thing, and it might be related, but the boreal forest is a fire-dependent ecosystem and huge and frequent fires in the boreal have been the norm for thousands of years.

People who are fixated on forest fires these days don’t seem to pay attention to the fact that cities and towns and other infrastructure has been growing at a fast pace in Canada’s north over the past few decades; the population of Canada in 1965 was 18 million; it’s now double that. Lots more infrastructure to burn now than there was not long ago.

Regardless, a dry spring in western Canada might mean a good hatch of grouse and other upland game birds and, where I live, maybe a great hatch and fall flight of ducks and geese. Dry and more ducks and geese may seem to be counter-intuitive, but in much of the boreal, like where I live, there’s no lack of water. A dry spring and summer will mean lower water levels and marshlands that are actually more productive than the norm (and especially when compared to a cool and wet summer). Plus it could and should translate into a bumper crop of wild rice. Northwestern Ontario has superb wetlands that can be dominated by wild rice, but wild rice does best when water levels fall during the summer. Many years our area gets cool, wet weather in June and July, which raises water levels and drowns out the wild rice beds.

Wild rice is not only sought after by local waterfowl, it’s a great attractant for migrating flocks. It’s also picked for commercial purposes, but only Aboriginals are allowed to harvest it (no racism here).

Locally, there seems to be a lot of ducks and geese around these days. On our pond, there’s a pair of Canada gee with a nest (actually, they’re re-nesting; they lost their first nest to a fox) and I suspect there’s a mallard nest somewhere, possibly a hooded merganser and I’m hoping a wood duck. All those ducks (males and females) are on the pond every day, and usually the males are there most of the day. Green-winged teal and blue-winged teal have been visiting as well, as have a few ring-necked ducks. Ringnecks have brought off a brood on the pond in the past, as have mallards, woodies, hoodies and of course the geese, which have successfully hatched out goslings for many years now. The more the merrier.

Plus, there are several (at least three) ruffed grouse drumming within earshot of the deck. And grouse overall in the area seem to be numerous, based on my recent travels in the forest.

The downside of dry – and it’s a big one – is the heightened risk of forest fire. It’s a risk one takes when living in the woods in a fire-prone ecosystem.

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It’s the end of April and it looks like winter has let go its icy grip. However, the ice hasn’t melted off all of the local lakes, one can still find a patch of snow here and there and it was below freezing (again) last night. Plus there is not much green to be seen. Still, the days are getting longer and longer and the sun has real warmth to it.

It was a reasonably mild winter; it didn’t get going until late into December and January, February and the first part of March was milder than normal. But it’s been colder than the norm for about the past six weeks so the ‘end’ of winter has arrived pretty much on schedule.

The deer I’ve seen – the relatively few that are still around – look fat and healthy; and, we’ve been seeing a lot of ruffed grouse of late, good signs that the winter was easy on wildlife. Hopefully the spring will not be too cold and wet so deer fawn survival is high and the grouse have a good hatch. There hasn’t been a real good hatch of grouse for several years (cold and wet springs have been having a good run), but one can always hope.

I was also hoping the wolf population would have suffered from a lack of deer to eat, but I’m not so sure. Last night I was photographing ducks (ring-necks, woodies, mallards, hooded mergansers) from our deck while grilling up a breast of wild turkey (I took a real nice tom in Michigan last week) when I heard some splashing in the pond. It takes me a while to focus after I’ve been looking through the viewfinder of the camera, so at first I couldn’t see a darn thing.

But a deer on the lawn below me was staring intently across the pond and when I stared in the direction it was, I saw what was causing all the commotion. A big timber wolf.

The wolf had waded out into the pond and dragged the deer hide Lil and I had frozen into the ice in January (the same deer hide I shot another wolf off the 2nd night after putting out the hide). It didn’t seem too concerned that we were watching and photographing it – maybe it knew that wolf season closed as of April 1. Eventually it dragged the hide into the woods, although we’re sure it didn’t go far as crows and ravens continued to circle and call for quite some time after the wolf had disappeared.

For most of my life, I’d go years between wolf sightings. Now I see one or more every few weeks. Over the past five or six years I’ve seen about 10 or 15 times more wolves than I have moose.

I guess that’s one reason why there are hardly any moose around here anymore. I have to think that at some point, the wolves will have to run out of food and maybe then moose and deer numbers can begin to recover. Something else to hope for.

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Spring is on its way, although the dreaded ‘Polar Vortex’ descended upon us last night, bring the temperatures well into the freezing zone. We also got a skiff of snow. Temperatures are supposed to stay cold for the next few days, but it looks like things will be on the cool side at least for 10 days or so, if you believe the weather forecast. After three days out, I think weather forecasting starts to enter the realm of science fiction . .  .

Regardless, it’s been a mild winter, which was welcome after the last two winters I can only describe as dreadful. There’s still ice on the lakes and some snow in the bush, but the sun has strength, the days are longer than the night and all in all things are looking up.

A few species of migratory birds have stated to show up, but not a lot. Crows, herring gulls, Canada geese and a smattering of robins have been spotted, along with some mallards, hooded mergansers and goldeneye ducks. The big rush should start soon.

But already there have been a few interesting observations. One is a crow that sits in the trees in our yard that coos like a pigeon. It’s the weirdest thing. Lil says it was here last year, too, and must have picked up the cooing habit from the pigeons which frequent our place.

The other neat thing we saw (Lil saw it first) is a mallard with a mostly white head (that’s it in the photo). It’s a bit grainy, as it was quite a distance away when I saw it and had to really crop the photo tightly so as to get a clear view. It’s obviously a  drake mallard (and there were a number of mallards with it and in close proximity), but for some reason the normally green head is mostly white. As the eye is dark and the rest of the bird appears to be a normal colour, it doesn’t appear to me to be a case of albinism. Maybe it had a sickness, or other near-death experience and the shock of it all caused it’s head of feathers to turn white. Or maybe it’s very old . . .

Actually, the mallard is likely to be suffering from leucism, or leukism, an abnormal plumage condition caused by a genetic mutation that prevents pigment, particularly melanin, from being properly deposited on feathers. No idea why it affected only the head, nor do I have a clue as to what might have caused the genetic mutation.

Regardless, colour variation is quite common in the animal world and white – or black – birds and animals aren’t all that uncommon. Still, it’s always interesting to see anomalies and speculate as to the cause.

If we see anything else that’s unusual, I’ll let you know.

 

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It was another hot and humid day yesterday, and raining again today. Lots of rain this year, although no huge deluge, like in some years. But a lot of rain. Lake levels are up, ponds and marshes are brimming. The forest is lush.

Sometimes early summer rains wreak havoc with small game like ruffed grouse and snowshoe hare. The prevailing thoughts are that the rains result in hypothermia, and too much moisture can mean a lot of biting insects and other factors which result in poor offspring survival. This is especially true if the timing of the rains coincide with birthing dates and especially if the rains are coincident with cold.

Fortunately, the heaviest rains seemed to have been late enough to get many of the wee creatures into their second or so week of life, and weren’t associated with undue cold. Plus, after several years when the mosquitoes in particular seemed to be worse with each year passing, this year saw a dramatic fall in mosquito abundance. Oh, there were still mosquitoes, but this year I didn’t need to wear a bug net when I went outside at dawn or dusk, like I had to last year. And the numerous dragonflies seem to be keeping the lid on the deer and horse flies, which I really appreciate.

It is always difficult to foretell what’s happened with respect to reproductive success of all the creatures out in the forest, but based on a number of observations, many species appear to have had good reproductive success. I’ve seen several broods of ruffed grouse and numerous small snowshoe hares. Lots of young Canada geese, who seem to have bred early as the young are already starting to fly, which is about two weeks earlier than in some past years. I’ve also seem broods of wood ducks, ring-necks and of course, mallards.

Other species – the non-game variety – also seem to have had a good year of reproduction. Tree swallows, barn swallows and cliff swallows all seemed to bring off young. In the recent past, some years have been complete failures for the local swallows. In general, the passerines (or dickie birds) seem to have had a good year. Around the house and flitting over the pond, there are numerous eastern kingbirds, cedar waxwings and American goldfinches. I’ve also seen some young of the year ruby-throated hummingbirds over the last couple of days.

And it’s been a good year for some frogs and garter snakes. Leopard frogs seem to be everywhere, which is great, as for many years they were scarce and seemed to be headed towards oblivion. Lots of tiny spring peepers too. But I haven’t seen any small toads – last year and the year before they were numerous – and we haven’t even heard many adults trilling. Same goes for the tree frogs, although there were some adults singing earlier in the year.

Friends of mine – biologists who had a special interest in herptiles (reptiles and amphibians) – say we actually don’t know much about herptile population dynamics and what the main drivers are. It seems populations go through inexplicable ups and downs, and not in a cyclical fashion like many other species.

That’s my quick mid-summer update on the status of the local small fauna. I’ll try to get back to some more controversial topics in the weeks ahead, but summer is a time to relax, and enjoy the heat. It won’t last long.

 

 

 

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I went down to the Ottawa region for a week to do a bit of spring turkey hunting. Given the facts that my hunting friend and guide had spent the past 5 months in the Bahamas and the winter down east had been, from what I could tell, dang cold and snowy, I didn’t know what to expect. I feared turkey numbers might be down.

It quickly became clear that turkey numbers were indeed down from previous years, or they were hiding, or something. I only heard two, maybe as many as four, turkeys gobbling during five early mornings and four evenings of hunting in three different spots. Lucky for me, I managed to call in a jake – but it came in silently.

On the first morning, the youngest member of our quartet, hunting by himself, bagged a nice tom. Three of us hunting on a nearby farm heard and saw nothing, although I may have heard a single gobble in the distance (with tinnitus, it can be hard to hear sounds clearly). The next morning, back at the farm, one gobbler was going at it and was lured in by Don, who promptly missed. That’s all we saw or heard.

That evening I hunted where young Brian had bagged the tom, and where I had spotted a turkey in the distance earlier in the afternoon. No action for about an hour, but then suddenly at 6:30 pm there was a turkey at my decoy and that was it for him.

After that, not much was seen or heard. We saw a few turkeys driving around, but far fewer than in years past. Few chances for photos, and in fact I didn’t get any of note. Old Brian, whose hunt camp we stayed at, decided that given the apparent low numbers of turkeys in the area he hunts, he probably won’t harvest another, unless turkeys start showing up all of a sudden, which is possible.

Winter can be hard on turkeys. In the Ottawa area, far north insofar as turkeys are concerned, has regular bouts of cold, snow, freezing rain, thaws and then more cold, snow, freezing rains and thaws.  In addition, the Ottawa region is flat and swampy, which means there are few sunny, south facing slopes where turkeys can gather to mitigate the effects of inclement weather conditions. Their saving grace are farm fields that often remain bare, or partly bare, owing to farmers spreading manure, or other farm related activities beneficial to turkey. Plus I suspect many rural folk feed turkeys like they do other wild birds.

It was still a good hunt and nice to be out in the spring woods. The ruffed grouse were drumming, ducks and especially Canada geese were everywhere, and one evening four trumpeter swans landed and stayed the night on the pond beside the cabin.

In addition to the the wildlife, it was nice to visit a number of friends I tend to see infrequently

So a good week and really nothing to complain about.