Ann Brokelman’s Toronto Wildlife Photography Safaris

Photograph by Ann Brokelman. “The Kiss”. February 3, 2020

Ann Brokelman spends every day out in Toronto’s parks and wilder areas, with her camera and a coffee. Since retiring from the City of Toronto’s Arts & Culture division 4 years ago, she has enjoyed countless hours watching and photographing Toronto animals, from buck to beaver (that is just today!), coyotes, fox, birds, and every other local creature you can think of.

A “Wildlife Photography Safari with Ann Brokelman” was one of the silent auction items at the Toronto Wildlife Centre’s Wild Ball last November, donated to raise funds for the TWC. When I commented to other Wild Ball volunteers that night about how awesome the photography safari would be, I heard from them that Ann is a wonderful photographer and might also be a TWC volunteer. It turns out that she is both.

Ann has been a wildlife photographer for more than 13 years. She also helps with Toronto Wildlife Centre animal rescues, and she has been part of hundreds of releases when an animal has healed or grown enough to be returned to the wild. She photographs many of the releases for the TWC.

Ann Brokelman releasing an owl back into the wilderness

Her Wildlife Photography Safaris were created when Ann was looking for a way to donate to the Toronto Wildlife Centre. She thought, “I know where the animals are in Toronto, so why don’t I take people with me.”

On her first safari, three years ago with a woman who works as a neurologist, they saw 67 different species in one day. They were out from 8am until 6pm. Ann says, “we were on a roll… baby hawks, baby swans, baby ducks, baby deer …  we just kept going because it was one of those things – this is the only chance!”

It was a friend of mine’s birthday last week. I had been thinking for weeks about what would be a super special gift for her. My friend is a birder and co-founded the Toronto chapter of a bird watching group, and a gardener, and photographer with a new camera she is getting to know. I thought of the photography safari auction item at the Wild Ball, and contacted the TWC’s event manager, Elena. She contacted Ann. It turned out that yes, Ann does offer Wildlife Photography Safaris year-round, to anyone who would like to go on one. A portion of her fee goes to Ann to cover costs and the rest goes directly to the Toronto Wildlife Centre as a donation. The perfect gift for my friend.

To prep for each full-day or half-day outing, Ann asks people which animals they are most interested in seeing. She says, there are some animals she can pretty much guarantee could be seen every day. Others, of course, are seasonal.

Guests on Ann’s safaris have the opportunity to use her camera. (A Canon 7D Mk with a 400mm prime lens.) The lens is crucial for getting clear colour-rich photos of animals and birds from a distance. Also, “you can see behaviour so much better by taking a short 30 second clip,” she says of the chance to video record using her equipment. If the person prefers to use their own equipment rather than her camera, Ann will take a few memory photos of the day.

One of the safaris she guided last year was with a fellow who was thrilled with the wildlife images he got, including Red Tailed Hawk babies. Ann tells me, “These babies were about 3 weeks old and they were dancing! So I suggested that he video record them. The adult came in with food and he captured all that on video.” This safari guest was a photographer with his own equipment that he used most of the day, but he used Ann’s long-distance lens and the video capabilities of her camera to be able to get the shots that were so special to him.

A Wildlife Photography Safari full day is around 6 or 7 hours, including driving to locations, walking, and enjoying the outdoors. Ann likes to help people understand the animals they see and why they are seeing it – all of the things that make it interesting.

She shows her guests things like how to stand to get great photos, how to use her camera, and “I can give people background of what has happened and what will happen next with the animal.” She says, “I try to teach the person about what we are seeing, what’s going on, what to expect, why the animals are here, what they are doing, what’s going on with them this time of year.”

“More than just taking pictures, it’s what’s going on in nature and in the world.” – Ann Brokelman

“Right now there are Snowy Owls all over the place – there are 8 that I know. In May, the little birds are coming through, and there are 5 locations I go to. When photographing birds, what I am looking for is colouring. I want to see what colour the beak is, I want to see what colour the feathers are, what colour is the fur and is it healthy, what colour is their tail, are all of the tail feathers there… all of those things are important to know when you are taking photos. There are also techniques for how to get the animal’s eye in the light so you get the glint – that is what makes the photos come alive.”

She brings a monopod or tripod, as well as her two all-time favourite books: Behavior Of North American Mammals by Mark Elbroch and Kirk Reinhart (which she found in Muskoka, and I intend to find online) and The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior by David Allen Sibley, which she received as a gift from a friend. “I really love to study and read about animals. I carry these books with me and if I see something unusual, one of these two books will usually explain what is happening.”

After the day of photographing wildlife, Ann adjusts the best of the photos in Photoshop and provides all of the images from the day as large Jpgs on a USB key for the safari guest to keep.   

Ann waiting for a heron to move…

When I spoke with Ann on the phone at 5:30pm, she had just arrived home after being out since 12:30pm. She said, “Today I picked up a coffee pulled up into a park with my camera, my coffee, and my purse. I went for a walk and saw nothing. Then on my way back to my car I saw a buck! I got photos of two bucks together with a young buck. And a strange thing happened. One of the bucks put its head between female’s legs and picked her right up off the ground. I thought, what is going on? Rutting season is in November. And what is he doing with horns still… they should be gone this time of year. I will investigate… this is unusual behaviour for this time of year.”

At that same park this afternoon, a woman asked Ann if she had seen the beavers. Ann had replied that she hadn’t seen the beavers for quite a while. So Ann went over to where the beavers are, watched as one cleared the bark off a branch, finished and tossed it away, and got another branch to work on. Ann got some wonderful photos of the mom and the baby beaver above the water. A particularly special treat, since it is the first week of February, and a thick layer of ice is usually covering the water.

Photograph by Ann Brokelman. Beaver. February 3, 2020

“I live and breathe nature,” she says. “Even at my house we have cameras and night vision cams all over the place. It is especially great to see the animals’ behaviour. There is a fox who pees in the exact same place every night.”

“Today I spent a lot of time videotaping and took a lot of photos… I can just watch the animals as well – I don’t need to take images. When I take someone else out with me, I don’t shoot – I focus on their experience.”

“I could tell you the story of every photo I have ever taken – where I was, when it was, who I was with. A beautiful shot and a beautiful moment become a memory.

I am a memory photographer.”

Photographer and Toronto Wildlife Photography Safari guide Ann Brokelman volunteers for Coyote Watch Canada, Shade of Hope, Toronto Wildlife Centre, and The Owl Foundation. She also writes “On the Wild Side” articles for Beach Metro News.

She can be found online at:

Ann Brokelman Photography in the Wild

Nature Photos By Ann Brokelman


Ann Brokelman’s On the Wild Side articles in Beach Metro News are here

A gorgeous story featuring Ann Brokelman’s images in the Niagara Escarpment News is here

A surprise in the mail: Pigeon Mating Dances

I just received a sweet delightful surprise in the mail, and thought I’d share it with you.

A bright yellow envelope arrived in my mailbox. In the envelope was a wonderfully fun tiny little book, illustrated handmade by Toronto artist Natalie Draz. 

Here’s a look inside Pigeon Mating Dances:

Natalie had also included some stickers with her illustrations of raccoons and pigeons. Each individual with its own name, so we know who each portrait is of.

Of course I had to investigate the real thing, and it turns out that pigeons really do have a mating dance!  The male pigeon coos at his chosen female, struts to impress her, and tries everything he can think of to show her how awesome he is. If she likes him, the pigeons mate for life and are monogamous through the years as they both care for and raise their babies. 

My little book, Pigeon Mating Dances, is now in a business card holder on my desk and it makes me smile every time I see it.

Natalie Draz has a store on Etsy here and you can visit her website here.

Peeps the baby pigeon

[A prose poem by Heather L Kelly]

The middle of winter, no mother, she cries for food, she cries for comfort. The plush stuffed dragon with pink wings in her enclosure to calm her is cute but … not interacting with her, not responding. Little peeps, loud peeps. She is calling for food, for love, for attention. She is a baby. Bird. She doesn’t know she was born a species that people call names like rat – another who is intelligent, affectionate, misunderstood. She doesn’t know what happened to her mother. Or maybe she does, and has nightmares. Where are her brothers and sisters. She calls out, loud peeps, I am here! I am here! Here! Here! Someone please feed me! Someone! I’m hungry! I am a baby and I am here in the strange place and I can’t get my own food. She calls out, someone hear me! Feed me! Hear me! All of the adult pigeons, in separate cages lined up along the counter, hear her. We humans, hear her, down the hall. The other pigeons hear her. None are her mother, the other pigeons can’t help her. They are isolated, they are there to heal from some other trauma. They are city birds, more likely to be burned from hot cooking oil in an alley than in a forest fire. These are city birds, our neighbours, our local babies, this baby. This mid-winter baby calls out, loud peeps. She calls out for food, she calls out for attention. A squab, rock dove, a mess of baby fuzz on her head. Not yet the iridescent plumes of her elders. Alert eyes, flappy flappy flappy fear when I come too near. To cuddle her would be terrifying and dangerous for her. To tell her everything will be ok would be untrue. But to love her, and feed her, is something we can do.

Bekah’s Bestiary

New Composition Premieres at The Royal Conservatory’s 21C Music Festival

Excerpt from the score for Bestiary I & II by Bekah Simms

It’s a relatively warm winter morning, and I’m at a downtown coffee shop with composer Bekah Simms, to talk about her new composition Bestiary I & II. It seems fitting that, just outside the large windows, hundreds of birds are swooping and swarming over the construction site on the other side of the street, and the large café, with its exposed brick walls and small wooden tables, is getting louder and louder as we chat.

The world premiere performance of Bekah Simms’s Bestiary I & II will take place on Sunday, January 19, 2020. Bestiary was commissioned by, and will be performed by, The Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School New Music Ensemble, conducted by Brian Current. The free concert is part of The Conservatory’s 21C Music Festival.

Simms has composed Bestiary I & II for amplified soprano, amplified harp soloists, chamber orchestra, and electronics. Bestiary I opens with Cosmia, named for the moths, an intro that leads into a section called Fauna. The second movement, Bestiary II, is titled Flora.

In the Fauna section of Bestiary I, birds are named by the soprano – sparrow and dove make multiple appearances, and there’s a dog, grouse, and a horse. In Bestiary II a similar naming happens, this time with plants and herbs like yarrow, bulrushes, heather, and hollyhock. 

Simms’s electronics are heard throughout most of the composition. I was fortunate to be able to listen a few excerpts. To me, isolated from the orchestra and harp, the electronic component sounds much like an urban city at dusk; twilight shimmering off of metallic surfaces, abstract animal or human sounds making occasional appearances. Simms confirmed that her compositions are often described as nocturnal sounding.

Bekah doesn’t usually speak about her music before people hear it, but she made a generous exception for this story. She is warm, friendly, and very articulate and knowledgeable. She smiles over her cappuccino, “Everybody is experiencing these sounds completely differently. I like hearing what people heard or saw when listening to my music. … I don’t want to take that way from them by telling them what I thought when I was writing it, because it’s way better that they have their own thing. I think that is really important.”

Bestiary I & II is inspired by Simms’s favourite album when she was sixteen: Ys by harpist, singer, and composer Joanna Newsom. Newsom’s recording was Simms’s first exposure to composing music for orchestra and solo voice, and the lyrics include a high frequency of animal and plant references. Therefore, quoting Ys in her own original composition, Bekah’s Bestiary, the majority of the soprano’s text are a compendium of the myriad creatures and plant life featured in the songs of Ys, with occasional but related lyrical fragments throughout.

Simms explains, “Singer and orchestra has existed for a long time, and Joanna’s album Ys is that format, but it sounds nothing like it. And then this piece [Bestiary] is a third iteration of this format, but now with electronics, so now you had this additional element, mostly sourced from instruments and Joanna’s music as well, but distorted and refracted a third time. So you get this increasing distorted image of something that is recognizable, and it comes from a place of love. I love these things. But I’m interested in making them strange… making them new and fanciful.”

“I have a lot of reverence for the materials that I work with. Even if I make them grotesque sometimes, it is still coming from a place of adoration. That is true for orchestral music, Joanna’s music, and the animals that are quoted. I find these things interesting and I want to luxuriate in the sounds and the ideas.”

“Animal life and plant life play a very strong role in the narrative of [Newsom’s] music. I didn’t want to use her top to bottom lyrics, so instead I pulled out what I thought was a very crucial part of the character of her pieces – which is the inclusion of so many different and disparately related animals. I included as many as I could. As the piece progresses, it uses different musical cues that are from each of the songs. She has a particular interest in flying animals, mostly birds, and sparrow particularly comes up many times. Sparrow is the first word that the soprano sings.

“I see the instrumentalists as each having a stratified purpose or role in this greater sonic ecosystem or environment. In particular, in the second movement almost none of the instruments are making their normal instrument sounds.”

“I didn’t want this piece to be a zoological study of animal sounds – it’s more abstracted than that. But I did use a little bit of actual animal call in the electronics. Just with birds because they are already very musical. I didn’t want to take us out of the musical moment. The sense that we’re in a different sonic space for a little while. But I used a bit of recording from Sawmill Creek Trail, a really active ecosystem out in Mississauga.” Simms has been making trips to schools as a music educator and composer, and a Sawmill Creek Trail sound walk recording she did with students has come in handy.

In the middle of the score, there’s a beautiful line where the electronic music notation is a bird murmuration swarming in and out of the lines of the staff. Bekah tells me about that moment in the composition: “All of the instruments clear the acoustic space and all that’s left are the bird calls. There’s a duet between the soprano and the bird calls, but the soprano is secondary … it’s removing that heirarchy between human and animal, so you have move of the birds, less of the human. And then granulated bird flaps, which is the human element of processing or changing that environment, clears the way to the sounds of the creek where I recorded the bird sounds. That is the one moment in the middle of the piece where [animal and nature sounds] are more literal, but that is the only moment when that happens.”

“I titled the piece, as a Bestiary, looking back at those original bestiaries from the medieval ages – they are really colourful, and fanciful, and a little obscure. Some of the descriptions of animals and the drawings of these animals are done by people who had never seen them. So you are looking at this abstracted, kind of alien version of something, that is very well meaning but it’s a little off, a little bit strange. And because of that, it becomes almost mystical and mythological even though they are describing real plant life, real animals. A lot of the sounds in this piece are somewhat similar. You recognize those instruments, but the sounds they are creating, the shapes they’re creating, the form they’re creating, they’re through a filter or through a haze or through a fog, so they’re not quite the version that you’re familiar with. They are a little more obscure, but still fanciful and colourful.”

Bekah Simms was nominated for a Juno Award in 2019, in the Classical Composition of the Year category.  Originally from St. John’s, Newfoundland, and now Toronto-based, Simms’ music has been widely broadcast in Canada and the United States, and performed across Canada, in over a dozen American states, Italy, Germany, Austria, Lithuania, and the UK.

Bestiary I & II was commissioned by the New Music Ensemble of The Royal Conservatory of Music’s Glenn Gould School, Brian Current, Music Director. The piece is approximately 11 minutes.

The world premiere performance of Bestiary I & II takes place Sunday, January 19, 2020, as part of The Royal Conservatory’s 21C Music Festival. The Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School New Music Ensemble, conducted by Brian Current, will perform the world premiere of Bekah Simms’s Bestiary I & II, Gabriel Dharmoo’s the fog in our poise, Michael Colgrass’s Hammer and Bow, and the North American premiere of Miguel Azguime’s Aguas Marinhas. The concert is at 1pm in Mazzoleni Concert Hall. Tickets are free, and will be available starting January 13, by calling 416.408.0208.

More information about Bekah Simms is at

More information about the 21C Music Festival is at

Ken Nicol Launches Art Career of Dusty the Squirrel

“This is a Dusty original…” is the first thing I hear as I walk into the Olga Korper Gallery. To my left, artist Ken Nicol is beside a piece of artwork, and speaking to a group of thirty-somethings. He takes the piece of art by its white frame and lifts it off the gallery wall.

He shows the group the back of the frame, “….and this is Dusty.” It’s a photo of a black squirrel with fluffy orange tail, holding her half eaten almond, looking directly at the camera.

This exhibition, the laughter between two miles, is a Ken Nicol exhibition “with special guest Dusty the squirrel.” There is a series of three of Dusty’s art pieces in the middle of the largest wall in the exhibition. And there is this stand-alone piece near the entrance. 

Ken’s work is precise, pattern-based, and, to me, irresistibly captivating. Words, weaves, lines – all patterns. Each with an interesting backstory or concept. There is a lot of containment. Like index card forms in a page, and teeny boxes in tiny boxes. He also plays with the idea of a “line” with grid lines, lines of text, lines representing distance, and referencing the line “no ifs, ands, or buts” in a hilarious piece where he has connected all of the ifs, ands, and buts in the text with straight lines.

One of the enthralling aspects of his work is the visible variations. The same but different. Being able to see a weave get smaller and tighter. Lines getting lighter or darker using different hardness of pencil lead. And in one of the series, Sol Lewitt sentences on conceptual art are numbered and typed on a page. A grid of four pages is created with the typed page plus three other pages of what looks like the exact same typing backward and upside down – but those pages are actually hand-rendered. Represented by Olga Korper Gallery, his work has been purchased by the Art Gallery of Ontario, and has been shown in exhibitions in Toronto, Hamilton, and New York.   

Dusty’s art is more minimal, though she uses an understated colour palette similar to Ken’s. Her subtle paw gestures are very in the moment and a little unruly. She leaves whitespace around the markings, appearing deliberate in her movements yet aware of the element of chance in the creation of her work.

Now, full disclosure: I’m not an expert on professional squirrel art. I’ve worked on fine craft, visual art, and photography exhibitions, as well as performing arts for many years. But I am not qualified to assess squirrel art. So with that in mind, I will just tell you my personal reaction:

I love Dusty’s work. It encapsulates the speed of squirrel life. It appears to be a meditation on and celebration of being one’s true self. And it seems to address the idea of evidence of each individual’s existence.

In front of Dusty’s three mid-sized art pieces in the middle of the gallery, Director Shelli Cassidy-McIntosh said, “Ken had these papers ready to roll for something bigger, and Dusty had other plans … so Dusty gets a cameo in the show.”

“I have squirrel friends.” Ken told me as he showed me a video of a sweet black squirrel who he met on the street. I can relate, as can many other Torontonians.

“There’s Deedee, Mimi, the original window squirrel, Gerald…” There are so many, he doesn’t call all of them by name anymore. They come to his shop window, and he lets them in, feeds them almonds. Some of them make art on his prepared paper.

His squirrel pals (at least the most talented and ambitious artists among them), are fortunate to have befriended an artist who is opening art world doors (and windows) for them.

Ken showed me a brilliant video of Gregory squirrel in his studio, black furry body flying through the air toward the camera. It’s amazing. And in a photo of DeeDee, a grey squirrel, she looks very happy and comfortable posing on a beam in the studio.

I asked Ken if it freaks him out to have squirrel chaos in his studio. He answered by explaining his three-part Francis Bacon piece on the wall to the right of the gallery entrance.

Ken asked me if I knew anything about Francis Bacon’s studio. I said no. He explained that Bacon’s studio was a disaster. A total mess. The work of Ken’s on the wall here is a quote from Francis Bacon that says: “you can see an advertisement, you can see something lying in the street, anything can stimulate and excite you into wanting to do something it doesn’t have to be a great or remarkable thing it could just be lying on the floor “ francis bacon

The quote is on three pieces of paper, each framed. “This piece I had in my pocket for a year.” That version is in a grid pattern of small rectangles, some that fell apart along the fold lines. “And this piece I had in my bag for a year.” The middle piece is ragged around the edges. “And then this piece I had in my shop for a year, but I was kinda disappointed that nothing happened to it.” The final piece looked perfect. No marks or damage whatsoever.   

On the other side of the entrance, the piece I saw first as I arrived was created by Dusty on March 18, 2019. As Ken put it on his wonderful blog every3point65, “…there was an incident… dusty hopped in through my window and kinda freaked herself out then bombed around my studio like a jerk. She put a couple footprints on my next mile. Luckily I had only put down the grid, but that takes most of a day and I had to start again. …”

Ken Nicol’s work in the exhibition was selling for $3,500 – $40,000. Dusty’s pieces are priced at $1,200.

the laughter between two miles exhibition ended on November 16. But I believe that Olga Korper Gallery now represents them both. 

The Olga Korper Gallery can be visited online at or in person at 17 Morrow Avenue, Toronto.

Ken Nicol’s work and blog can be found at

Keep an eye out for a Dusty the squirrel artist website in the future.

Undomesticated at the Koffler Gallery

The first Mary Anne Barkhouse piece you see in the Undomesticated exhibition at the Koffler Gallery is anything but wild and undomesticated.

It’s an oddly domestic scene where a wooden sculpture of a fox, with no visible legs, sits on a table that has been set with its favourite delicacies – birds, bugs, and a mouse, on platters. All placed, somewhat haphazardly, on a white tablecloth that has a ribbon of what might be interpreted as brown tracks woven into it. There are birds printed on the napkins, which are placed loosely on the table as if someone just stepped away for a moment.

The fox, on the table close to one end, overlooks the spread, unable to move. Unlike some of Barkhouse’s pieces where the animal appears ready to spring into motion, in this piece, the fox appears to be both a part of the table settings as much as the guest of honour. 

Artist and sculptor Mary Anne Barkhouse is from the Kwakiutl First Nation in BC, and she now lives and works in Minden, Ontario. Barkhouse’s artistic practice is deeply engaged with environmental and Indigenous issues, and evokes the influence of empire on the many human and animal inhabitants of the land we now call Canada, as the opening line of description of her previous exhibition at the Koffler Gallery states. Her work appears in numerous public spaces across the country and has been shown in many galleries, including the solo exhibition at the Koffler in 2017 guest curated by Jennifer Rudder, and more recently in the exhibition How to Breathe Forever, curated by Lisa Deanne Smith at OCAD gallery in early 2019. 

The other Barkhouse piece in Undomesticated is a chandelier; a large branch full of paper butterflies. It takes up a significant amount of space in the room and is pretty – appearing like a swarm of cream-coloured butterflies. Upon closer look, you realize that each butterfly has been stuck through with a sharp twig. Like they might have been accidentally impaled on the branch. It is both beautiful and disturbing. Although relatively colourless, the piece is based on Monarch butterfly migration to their southernmost destination in Mexico.

Undomesticated, curated by Mona Filip, starts in the Koffler Gallery and extends throughout the entire Artscape Youngspace building. I was fortunate to have a fantastic tour led by Francis Tomkins, with excellent support from Gabby Marcuzzi Herie. The exhibition starts with pieces in an uninhabited house structure in the Koffler Gallery, where Francis introduced the exhibition. This exhibition engages a discussion about who and what belongs in domestic spaces. The idea of changing the function of objects – things we are so used to that we don’t see anymore – so we see them again in a new way, also caught my attention.

The exhibition text states, Encompassing a wide range of media, Undomesticated  transforms the everyday to reveal its hidden, unyielding strangeness.

One of the first pieces you encounter is an octagonal video installation on the floor, in what looks like a nest of branches. Hanna Claus’s interlacings explores the ‘interlacing’ of her Indigenous and European ancestry through William Morris-esque interwoven flora imagery. Indigenous medicinal plants are what appear in Claus’s work.

Throughout the exhibition, a wide range of topics address many different fascinating stories and personal histories. Francis explained the pieces thoughtfully and knowledgably. As we discussed each piece throughout the exhibition, themes of loss, power dynamics, resiliency, and repurposing, came up again and again. As well as the use of digital technologies to reimagine traditional art forms, and the humour in some of the pieces in the exhibition that are both meaningful and funny.

In discussing the Mary Ann Barkhouse pieces, Francis explained, “Humans behave as if the natural world is there just for us. We try to control and collect nature. But the natural world is resilient. And we need to think about our responsibility to it.”

The exhibition’s description says: Detouring the objects and settings of dwelling spaces, the exhibition addresses an underlying impossibility to fully adapt to or tame our environments in order to construct places where our bodies and psyches can seamlessly fit in.

Undomesticated will be on view until November 17, 2019. Admission is free. The Koffler Gallery is located at the Artscape Youngspace at 180 Shaw Street, Toronto. 

Artists: Mary Anne Barkhouse, Gwenaël Bélanger, Katherine Boyer, Sandra Brewster, Hannah Claus, Erika DeFreitas, Julie Favreau, Nicolas Fleming, Iris Häussler, Lucy Howe, Gunilla Josephson, Lewis Kaye, Valerie Kolakis, Carmela Laganse, Heather Nicol, Dainesha Nugent-Palache, Gord Peteran, Birthe Piontek, Yannick Pouliot, Adrienne Spier, Karen Tam, Kevin Yates, Shaheer Zazai, Shellie Zhang
Curator: Mona Filip / Art Director: Nicolas Fleming