Wind and Other Surprises

Beloved birders,

I’ve already mentioned that the bird banding station at Tommy Thompson park is my favorite place in Toronto. Everything about the experience delights me: watching the sun rise over the city, traipsing through urban wilderness, holding a bird in the hand. Even the 4:30 am wakeup time has become part of the incomprehensible pleasure. And everything is perfect until the direction of the wind changes and suddenly we’re regaled with fishy stench from the 30,000 or so Double-crested Cormorants that breed in a nesting colony in the park, just west of us.

When the cormorant perfume wafts by, it feels like you’re stranded in a fish shop on a humid day; there’s literally no reprieve from the odours. While I’m holding my breath, waiting for the fragrant fumes to pass, it’s hard to recollect what it is I love about this place that used to be a landfill and is now a peculiar human-made urban wilderness.

And just like that, the wind reminds me that I live at the whim of weather, that beauty is a thing of this world and doesn’t exist outside of it. It’s so important to be reminded that the cormorant smells exist alongside the gorgeous migratory warblers in the hand, that it’s not a question of choosing one or the other, but rather recognizing that they both have their place. Too often, I want nature to be some sort of perfect respite from my day-to-day life, I long for photoshopped, Instagram-style natural surroundings, but reality is that it’s dirty, it smells, it’s buggy, too hot, and never entirely as you expect it. And that’s the most beautiful part of it.

This morning, my husband and I went for a walk by the lake in the Beaches at 7:30 am to beat the heat. As we sat on the new pastel-colored Muskoka chairs sipping our coffee and eating cranberry muffins, I saw thousands of cormorants pass by, gliding just barely over the surface of the water. First one group, then another, then so many of them all I could see were thick black oscillating lines along the horizon. This bird that I usually can’t stand, suddenly transformed into something approaching beauty.

And They’re Back!

Beloved Birders,

It’s still hot, sticky and humid here in Toronto, but according to the warblers, it’s fall already and time to begin journeying southward! Even when fall is the furthest thing from my mind –meteorologically speaking — the birds already feel it in their bones. They know when it’s time to go. Their perception of time is dictated largely by food and light and breeding. In a sense it’s life stripped down the the barest of essentials, but there’s also an enviable single-mindedness of purpose.

This is my fifth fall season at the banding station and I still make embarrassing mistakes. This morning, for instance, I extracted two warblers from the nets and could not (for the life of me) ID them. I saw greenish grey on the back, an eyestripe, whitish underneath (and a manifest lack of tail on one of the birds), but all of this told me nothing. I went through my mental list of warblers and the markings didn’t correspond to any birds I knew. And since I had gotten a few challenging ID’s right just minutes before, people started to suspect that I might indeed the bearer of great news — a rarity! a tick! a banding station first! And then my friend Taylor took one look at the bird and said, “Tennessee.” Of course it was a Tennessee. I’m so notoriously awful at identifying this drab-ish warbler in the field that I forgot it existed entirely!

How could I have forgotten the Tennessee? Maybe because to me it’s the plain Jane of warblers; the only thing I really love about the bird is it’s needle-sharp pointy bill, but in this case I didn’t even notice it.

Identifying birds is funny sometimes. Often, it’s a question of focusing on things I recognize, rather than zeroing in on markings that confuse me. Had I stopped to look at the bill, I would have immediately seen the tennessee-ness of this warbler. But instead, I focused on the greenishness of the bird’s back and started feverishly running through all the warblers I wasn’t sure about — could it be a pine? an orange-crowned? a deeply confused chestnut-sided? My guesses, which I kept to myself, started getting more and more delirious.

I had just accomplished that same feat with the saddest looking (female) Cape May Warbler, which had none of the colorful markings of its male counterpart in breeding plumage. This one sported a brown exterior punctuated but a buttery chest with the faintest of stripes; the diagnostic facial markings were barely visible, but I immediately ID’d it correctly because I saw a diagnostic yellow patch on its rump — not as bright as the appropriately named Yellow-rumped Warbler, but bright enough — and that detail told me all I needed to know. If nothing else, birding is giving me the confidence to trust in what I do know. It’s often much more than I had anticipated.

 

When Gannets Render You Speechless

Beloved Birders,

Have you ever wondered what being surrounded by 150,000 Northern Gannets (give or take a few) would feel like? We recently returned from a trip to Quebec, to the Gaspé peninsula, which, on top of rewarding us with some memorable meals, exquisite smoked fish and possibly the best croissants I’ve ever tasted, is also home to Ile Bonaventure, a phenomenal provincial park which just happens to be the largest Northern Gannet breeding site in North America.

An afternoon on Ile Bonaventure would convert even the most skeptical nature novice into a birding fanatic. Watching these enormous birds with a wingspan almost the size of a pelican’s chatter, run amok, fight, care for their fledgling, scratch one another’s necks lovingly, lock bills in a tense dispute was easily the highlight of my summer. That I could stand on the edge of their breeding colony, or even on top of an observation tower literally in the midst their colony and that they would go about their business without even paying an iota of attention to me made me feel like I was privy to some sort of magical spectacle. And magical it was; we were surrounded by gannets as far as the eye could see. And when we looked out on the water there were thousands more gannets plummeting headfirst into the water (up to 100km/hour!), collecting fish for their partners and offspring.

Northern Gannets on Ile Bonaventure, Quebec. Look at the fuzzy babies!  They’ll be ready to fly away in a few weeks!

Morus bassanus. Northern Gannet, Fou de bassan as they say in Quebec. Looking absolutely regal.

Northern Gannets as far as the eye can see. Ile Bonaventure, Quebec

Five years ago, we went to Newfoundland and I saw about 20 or so gannets, fell in love with them, but missed out on getting the full gannet experience at Cape St. Mary’s because our itinerary was already packed, and I had to content myself with thousands of Atlantic Puffins instead. I’m well aware of the fact that these are fist world problems, but to miss something as spectacular as a gannet breeding colony when one is only 200 km away and when one knows that a trip to Newfoundland doesn’t happen that often, well then the unseen gannets turn into a near-catastrophe. Not only that but one talks about the missed gannets every time somebody mentions Newfoundland, to the extent that the unseen birds have almost eclipsed the dozens of spectacular species I did manage to see. Birding is a strangely emotional business.

When planning our trip to Gaspesie, the first thing my husband said was, “will a trip to Bonaventure Island make you stop talking about the gannets we didn’t see in Newfoundland?” I assured him it would. But I can’t say for sure.

I’d like to tell you that I had an earth-shattering epiphany when standing in the midst of the spectacular seabirds, that somehow the contours of my existence became clearer to me, that I could feel things in a new way, that suddenly my life made sense to me. But no. I spent a day with the gannets, and all I could think was, “I am where I need to be.” And I was struck by how banal that thought was, in and of itself.

But maybe that’s it? That when I’m in the company of birds, I feel at peace.

There weren’t just gannets: we saw thousands of Kittiwake, Black Guillemots, Common Murres, Razorbills, Great Black-backed Gulls, and five Minke whales on our crossing from Percé to Bonaventure Island. And we visited fantastic parks, saw a beaver and a moose (!), two skunks and six marmots; we stopped in more fromageries than I care to admit and ate more smoked fish than was reasonable and consumed a year-long supply of croissants.

The pictures I took of the gannet colony doesn’t do it justice. You can’t hear the cacophony of screeching, uproarious, grating calls and you can’t inhale the stench — a blend of fish, guano (fancy word for excrement) and ocean perfumes. But most of all, you can’t capture the way the breeding colony is brimming with the frenzy of new life. And in the face of all that, I was rendered speechless.

Spring Migration FOMO

Beloved Birders!

Spring birding is both the time I live for and also the time of year that makes me most anxious. And a few minutes ago, my friend Monika put it into words for me: “the bird FOMO is sometimes hard to take,” she said in an email. And that’s exactly it. Before the age of eBird, where I can see exactly who has seen which bird in which location, I think I used to be happier.

Here I am at the bird banding station, holding my favorite migrant, the Black-and-white Warbler. Photo taken by Taeko K, exactly 20 hours before I missed the Least Bittern and experienced severe spring FOMO that resulted in tears. This birding business is highly emotional.

Here is what life looked like a mere two years ago: in May, I would go out birding, see as many warblers as I could and return home entirely fulfilled and glowing. (OK, honesty alert: two years ago I would return home perplexed and wondering about whether I’d ID’d the warblers I’d seen correctly and a little concerned that everything that wasn’t a show-stopping Blackburnian or Cape May Warbler seemed to look like a female Common Yellowthroat. If I am to be brutally honest, two years ago, I couldn’t ID much and that too put a damper on things.) Now, when I come home from birding, the first thing I do is check eBird to see what else was seen in that particular location, and inevitably see the most dreadful news spelled out for me: the Least Bittern I’d gone out to find poked its head out of the reeds exactly five minutes after my departure.

Two years ago, I might have thought: well, I gave the Least Bittern my best shot, I’ll try again next year. Now, I start to feel like a failure. Not only was it there, but I missed it by a matter of minutes. And that Whimbrel I saw flying overhead? Well, had I stayed an hour longer, I would have seen 1000 Whimbrel.

Come May of every year, there’s a certain desperation in the air. Migration is short. The song birds are on their way north and my window for seeing them is relatively small. Every outing matters. The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) has become intense. So intense, in fact, that I wish I could go back to pre-eBird days when I had no idea what I was missing and was consequently happier.

But was I really happier? I’m not exactly sure that’s true either. My ignorance was perhaps more acute two years ago, but I also struggled to identify relatively simple things a lot more. So I’m not convinced I want to return to that state of affairs either.

In the end, after eBird told me that I’d missed the Least Bittern, I went right back out and found the bird two days later. I now knew more specifically where to look (and how long!) and did manage to get phenomenal looks at it. And if I’m even more honest, I wasn’t the one who found the bird; after searching for an hour, I left to find some Whimbrel, and upon returning there were two other gentlemen there who had their eyes on the bird. But I later ran into some acquaintances and repaid the favor by showing them the bittern. And you should have seen the look on their faces — the exact same intense gratitude and awe that I had just bestowed upon the folks who had helped me find the bird. I had just saved my birdy pals from some FOMO of their own!

This FOMO in May just seems to come with the territory. I’ve been seeing a lot, and missing out on just as much, if not more, but that’s part of the beauty of May birding. And I realized very quickly one of the greatest hazards of falling in love with birds: the more you see the more you want to see. It’s a hobby (obsession?) that revolves very much around the pursuit of something, the quest. And where there is pursuit, there lies endless disappointment, because it seems you’ll never get there quick enough and see quite enough.

But there’s also endless appreciation for the things you do see, and with that comes the most profound joy. And in the end, I’d rather have some FOMO than not see birds at all.

On (Failing and) Seeing a Virginia Rail

Beloved Birders!

Failure seems to be having its moment. Everyone seems to be flaunting their failures in the spirit of greater transparency, which is indeed important, especially in the climate of social media, which often only isolates success stories, as if forgetting how much hard work and, yes, failure happens behind the scenes. Anyhow, one could even say that this blog, Birds and Words, is a pioneer in failure, because for every bird I see and ID with certainty, there are dozens that I fail to see or misidentify. In other words, if you’re not failing, it probably means that you’re not doing much of anything.

Which brings me to the topic of the Virginia Rail (Rallus limicola), which I saw this morning at Colonel Samuel Smith Park, shortly before 8am. I watched him weave in and out of the reeds, stealthily as is his wont, and then followed him (with my binoculars) right into a clump of mud, where he sat, camouflaged, for the next twenty minutes. I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out if I’d just happened upon him in the mud, so perfectly was his camo outfit, but since I’d traced his trajectory, I knew he was there and had his exquisite red bill to myself for a thrilling quarter of an hour. Long enough to send my friend Martha a text. Long enough to call my husband with the good news. Long enough to forget that I’d been here five days ago with absolutely no luck. That is, long enough to forget my initial failure.

Virginia Rail. Photo from here.

You see last Friday, determined to see the rail — a notoriously skittish bird that I’ve only seen once, and even then, with the trusted help of my bird guru — I headed out and felt pretty smug to have bypassed rush hour completely. I woke early, made myself coffee and breakfast to go, and off I went in search of the Virginia Rail that was “next to the culvert.” The only problem was that I didn’t know a culvert was exactly, so I had to call my friend Martha and ask her. The next problem is that when Martha gave me directions to the culvert, she forgot to mention that the park has not one but at least three culverts, and so of course, as luck would have it, I spent 40 minutes searching for the bird at the wrong culvert. I did end up finding the correct culvert thanks to the good fortune of meeting another kind birder who told me that I’d be waiting an awfully long time if I stayed where I was…once at the correct culvert, I waited another half hour at which point I thought I’d buy myself a donut. And then I felt for my wallet only to realize that I’d left it at home, which wouldn’t have been the end of the world, but it kind of was because I had errands to run and couldn’t even pay for parking (let alone run the errands without said wallet). So I said goodbye to the promise of a Virginia Rail, and to my beloved culvert, and raced home, this time timing my drive with the thick of rush hour. I returned home feeling particularly dejected because I knew that heavy rains were expected and I didn’t think the rail would survive the storm…Some days just aren’t meant for birding, I guess.

But that isn’t true either. Because, you see, just as I was lamenting my Virginia Rail fail, I suddenly saw a pair of Blue-winged Teal! The same teal I’d been lamenting not seeing a few weeks ago at Tommy Thompson Park when we could have walked further, but I sensed that Mr. Birds and Words was tired and we decided to turn back. Suddenly, out of nowhere, my beloved Blue-winged Teal!

I wasn’t ready to give up on the rail, and so today I tried again. Had I not seen it, I would have tried tomorrow and the next day too, because when I get something into my head I can be quite stubborn about it. And I really wanted a Virginia Rail on my spring list. That is a complete lie. The truth of the matter is that I really wanted to prove to myself that I could find a Virginia Rail by myself.

I gave away the punch line in the title. Of course I saw the rail. It was there waiting for me, illuminated by sunshine — our first glimpse of sun in over five days — and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. But then it only got better: I walked toward the creek and saw not one but three American Woodcocks (Scolopax minor) waddling, flying haphazardly, alighting and flying off again, a Horned Grebe, a Brown Creeper (FOY!), numerous Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, a Common Raven, Hermit Thursh, Black-crowned Night Herons, Eastern Phoebes and likely one of my last great looks at waterfowl (unless winter never ends and the ducks decide not to moult and they stick around forever….) And even though it doesn’t feel like Spring yet, I know it’s here because I got dive-bombed by at least a dozen Tree Swallows.

So….here’s to failure. And more failure.

 

The Worst Photo of the Best Barred Owl I’ve Ever Seen

Beloved Birders,

Back in the dark ages, before I’d ever looked closely at a bird, it used to be much easier to travel. I would do my research, read some guide books, perhaps a cultural history of whatever place I was headed to, draw up a list of things to do, see, eat, and experience and off we’d go. But now that birds have entered into the equation, I constantly find myself torn. Museum or sewage lagoon? Art gallery or maintenance yard in some out-of-the-way park that happens to also double as a warbler trap come spring? And now it always feels like I’m missing something.

Nevertheless. We persist, even in our imperfect state. Our trip to Washington, DC was a delight — both on the art and the bird front (and, most unexpectedly, also the Afghan food front — if you go to DC, do eat at LAPIS and do order their dumplings and I guarantee your life will be forever altered. I’ve been cooking Afghan dishes ever since we returned and there’s no looking back.) On all my previous trips to DC, I didn’t venture much beyond the National Gallery — one of my favorite places in the world (we did take a full half-day to reconnect with Vermeer, Van Eyck, Manet, Rothko, et al.). But this time, we also ventured further afield to  the Hirshhorn, where I marvelled at Ilya and Emilia Kabakov’s installations, filled with genius & humor & terrific sense of irony; the Phillips Collection (holy Klee! need I say more?); the surprisingly wonderful Kreeger Museum; and the stunning Hillwood museum, home of the astonishing Marjorie Merriweather Post who loved Russian art, icons, porcelain, Faberge eggs and schnauzers. We even made it to the gorgeous gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, and the cherry blossoms put on quite a show for us, as did the magnolias. Coming home to Toronto with its freezing rain felt like a culture shock on many levels.

We also ventured out to the National Zoo, where we saw a Bald Eagle fly over the caged eagles — a rather curious juxtaposition. I wonder if the caged ones saw their erstwhile friend and relative flying over and I wonder if they were jealous of his freedom. We went for long walks in Rock Creek Park, where I saw so many Tufted Titmice I nearly got bored of them. I saw my first-of-the-year Winter Wren, Eastern Phoebe and Hermit Thrush, and just when I started to lament the fact that I had been privileging art over birds, my husband noticed a dark lump high up in a tree. He had been seeing squirrel nests everywhere and we didn’t make much of the “dark lump” comment. But I looked anyhow and it turned out to be a Barred Owl! How is it that my husband, who specializes in naked-eye birding ONLY, manages to find the best birds? I’ll admit that I got a tiny bit competitive (not my finest moment), but pretty soon I let go of my extreme pettiness and enjoyed the fabulous up-close Barred owl experience! Needless to say, my picture didn’t do it justice. Actually, looking at this photo, I can’t even find the owl. But maybe you’ll be able to.

This photo perfectly illustrates why I so rarely photograph birds. I swear there’s a Barred Owl in there somewhere. And it was a ferocious beast of a bird. In the best possible sense.

And there he sat, his back to us, showing off his unmistakable brown and white barred plumage. A few minutes later, he began doing his formidable neck-twists, and then sat there for about ten minutes with one eyed closed and the other staring right at us. A sight to behold. If it hadn’t started to get dark, we probably would have stayed for hours more. It’s strange that my only material evidence of the Barred Owl also happens to be the worst photo I’ve ever taken. Yet knowing that we found the owl on our own when we were least expecting it, and that I could ID it with perfect certainty made it the best Barred Owl I’ve ever seen.

I also saw Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Eastern Towhees, and a phenomenal Northern Mockingbird who regaled us with a series of about twenty different songs, like an ipod on shuffle mode. We also had Northern Flickers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Downies galore. Not great in terms of numbers, but it turned out to be one of the most surprising and exciting urban birdy adventures.

And here I am at the National Gallery in front of Katharina Fritsch’s puzzling and extraordinary cockerel. It grew on us and left us smiling for days. And how awesome is that when my birding life and my art-loving life coincide perfectly?

It Begins With an American Woodcock

Beloved Birders!

Spring season began at the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station this morning. Actually, it began yesterday, but today was my first official day. I hadn’t realized how excited I was to start scribing until I couldn’t fall asleep last night; all I could think of was the possibility of starting the day off with a woodcock.

And sometimes, beloved birders, dreams really do come true. We drove into the banding station to the accompaniment of peents and our first — and most exciting — bird of the day was indeed none other than an American Woodcock (Scolopax minor):

Happiest faces at the banding station, with an American Woodcock. Left to right: Sarah Bradley, yours truly, and Mike. Photo by Sarah Bradley.

By the time daylight made its definitive appearance, the woodcocks were gone, but since we open mist nets a half hour before sunrise, we managed to catch this beauty. His eyes are perched so high on his head that he manages to see both forward and backwards at the same time. Such a peculiar, pouty little thing, and so much smaller than I had imagined — really it’s no larger than a robin! But look at our ecstatic faces on the photo! Who doesn’t love a woodcock? Could you imagine what we would have looked like had we seen the bird’s super-sexy aerial dance where the male American Woodcock flings himself into the air and flies in robust circles before letting out his signature peent sounds and plummeting to the ground?

The other birds paled in comparison, but it was still a fantastic day. I was so happy to be back at the station that even the Common Grackles glistened more than ever before and the American Tree Sparrows made me smile because I had no trouble distinguishing them from the Song Sparrows. And the lone Ring-necked Duck amidst dozens of Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneyes and White-winged Scoters made for great early morning company.

Happy Spring! It’s going to be a magnificent one.

Looking Forward

Beloved Birders,

This weekend, my friend C had a few of us over for brunch, and shortly before we left she asked us what we were looking forward to this spring/summer. And although I have a few trips planned that I’m excited about and a lecture series that I’m working hard toward, the first thing out of my mouth was, “the birds — they’re coming back!”

Sometimes it’s that simple. The fact that they’ll be back right on schedule, that I will see my first (FOY = first of the year) Yellow-rumped Warbler, followed (or immediately preceded) by the Pine Warbler, and shortly thereafter the battalion of Black-and-white, Yellow, Magnolia, Nashville, American Redstart, Black-throated-blue, Black-throated Green, and with Blackpoll warblers rounding out the season later in May. It all happens so quickly — over a period of 6-8 weeks over two dozen colorful songbirds transform Toronto into a hotbed of birdy activity. I sleep less in April and May than other months of the year, largely because I’m desperate to get as many hours of birding in as humanly possible. Because these weeks sustain me for the rest of the year.

Next week the bird banding station opens, and though early April starts off slowly, things will move into high gear by the middle of the month. And along with the warblers come the swallows and sparrows and thrushes and soon the rattle of the Belted Kingfisher will accompany me on my walks in the local park and for about two months I’ll be the happiest sleep-deprived person in the city.

It’ll be sad to see the ducks depart, and I’m still hoping for a Surf Scoter before I bid them all adieu, but in the event that I don’t see one, it won’t be the end of the world. I’ve already pulled out my Warbler Guide and have started reconnecting with Larkwire and trying to memorize as many birdsongs as I can. It’s an uphill battle, there will be ample misidentifications, embarrassing mistakes made in the field, but I’m excited about that part of the learning process as well.

It’s spring! The days are longer, the birds are heading northbound, and somehow the geographical stars have aligned, for once in my life, and put me in the centre of it all (well, that’s a slight exaggeration; I suppose if I lived in Leamington, at the edge of Point Pelee, I’d technically be in the epicentre of it all, but I’m trying to shed my perfectionist skin these days, so I don’t think epicentre is exactly what I’m after, either). Could I have really asked for anything better?

Goodbye Winter!

Beloved Birders!

I’m going to say the unthinkable: I’m sad to say goodbye to winter. Thankfully, I live in Southwestern Ontario, where winter takes a while to make a pronounced departure (there’s a lot of hemming and hawing, red herrings, faux-departures), so I don’t have to shed a tear just yet. That said, I’m super excited about spring, but also daunted by May Madness and already somewhat stressed about the fact that I can’t be in ten different places at once in May, chasing every single warbler that comes my way. May is challenging. I keep having to remind myself, in May, to take pleasure in what I’m looking at rather than stress about everything else that I’m not seeing. Oh, the perils of birding. It really is an emotional business.

But let’s recap winter, since it’s been one of my all-time best. I managed to get a lifer — the Tufted Duck that hung around Mississauga through the holidays and then when I finally had a chance to venture out it proceeded to elude me five times in a row. I finally got it mid-February, by accident, after I had stopped looking for it. Instead, I ventured out to LaSalle Marina in Burlington where I loaded up on waterfowl sightings and bald eagles galore, and from there drove up to see the rufous-phased Eastern Screech Owl nearby and met a friendly photographer who told me to sprint over to Windermere Basin in Hamilton because Mr. Tuftie was hanging out close to shore and easily visible sans scope! So off I went and indeed, he was in perfect binocular view. I’m not sure whether the best part was that I got the Tufted Duck or whether it happened when I least expected it. Either way, it was spectacular (and also confirmed that the only thing currently standing between me and the purchase of a scope is my physical fortitude, so I have begun a weight training regimen in earnest, to make sure that once I purchase said scope, I’ll actually be able to carry it! Tiniest of confessions: when powerlifter/Mr. Birds and Words saw me doing my 3-pound dumbbell exercises diligently, he laughed and said my scope purchase might be a long way off! Oh ye of little faith…).

Lifer aside, I have seen Snowy Owls every single weekend since late December. I’ve walked the length of Tommy Thompson park so many times that the owls I’ve encountered there feel like my personal pets. The only waterfowl I’m missing from my list are Surf and Black Scoter, but hopefully it isn’t too late to get those somewhere nearby. I even saw a surprise Northern Saw-whet Owl when I ran into a friend on the spit. Late one afternoon in February, I managed to catch sight of six Short-eared Owl coming in to roost. I also got the elusive Northern Shrike in Humber Bay park, and came face to face with coyotes twice — and didn’t die of fright, though I must admit I came close — in my quest to find birds. I’ve also seen five species of Goose — Canada, Cackling, Greater-white fronted, Snow and (darling) Ross’ — and that number could have been six had I driven up to see the lone Barnacle hovering around Schomberg, but I saw him five years ago in Stockholm, back when I didn’t know anything at all and couldn’t even tell if I was looking at a duck or a goose and needed my pal Rick Wright to identify him for me, and will likely see him again this summer in Europe, so I opted to be satisfied with the current state of affairs. I also managed to see flocks of majestic Tundra Swans flying overhead on a day with clear skies.

Winter birding is more meditative than spring birding. Not only are the sightings fewer in number, the temperatures sometimes daunting, but the rewards are enormous. And now, the Red-winged Blackbirds are singing everywhere, the Northern Cardinals are getting feisty, and it’s time for something altogether different.

In other, somewhat but not altogether less birdy news, I reread Jane Eyre, and did you know that the book Jane reads in chapter 1 is none other than Bewick’s History of British Birds? Needless to say, I was even more smitten this time round. To think — one of my favorite literary heroines was a BIRDER! I’ve now developed even more respect for Jane!

Interview with Drummers Who Love Birds (aka: Danny Miles)

Beloved Birders,

I met Danny Miles on my favorite day of the year, the Christmas Bird Count, which fell on December 17 2017. Our four-person team, led by Justin Peter, spent nine hours counting what turned out to be a colossal number of Mallards, House Sparrows, Rock pigeons, and other assorted waterfowl, including a resplendent Harlequin Duck. While I froze my fingers scribing our numbers, Danny took photographs of every species we saw. What are the chances that a rock star – the drummer of the famed band July Talk – and a classical music nerd would end up on a CBC team together? Well, therein lies the beauty of birding. You never know who you’ll meet or where exactly you’ll end up. After perusing Danny’s awesome bird photography blog and his Instagram feed, and becoming insanely jealous that he managed to see his first 2018 Snowy Owl before I did, I asked if he’d be up for an interview. We chatted over email, and he introduced me to the creepiest bird song I’ve ever heard (Google the Brazilian Great Potoo if you’re curious) and introduced me to the work of a few other fabulous bird photographers. All the bird photos in this post have been taken by Danny Miles and are used with permission.

You said that 2018 started for you with a Snowy Owl sighting. Has it been auspicious?

It is still a very exciting moment for me. I have really been focusing a lot on music so far this year. I haven’t had much time to get out birding. Once my drum parts are written and recorded I will have more time for more adventures.

Danny Miles’ first bird of 2018. Snowy Owl photographed in Tommy Thompson Park, Toronto.

How did you get into birding?

I realized I was into birding while on tour with July Talk. I was always interested in nature. I do a lot of walking and hiking while I’m on tour, it helps me clear my head and it keeps me sane. I was in Florida on a day off and I was on a long walk. There were two Sandhill Cranes on a front lawn and I stood and watched them for about half an hour. I was so fascinated by these two birds. After that I couldn’t stop thinking about them. I had caught the birding bug I suppose. Later, on that same tour while in Montreal I bought my first field guide and went out to see what birds I could find and ever since I have been hooked.

Do you have a favorite bird?

California Condor. I have never seen one before but they are at the top of my list. Favourites I have photographed are the Eastern Screech Owl and the Snowy Owl. A more common favourite is the Red-tailed Hawk. I see them all the time and I love them.

Red-tailed Hawk

How did you like your first Christmas Bird Count experience?

It was very educational for me. I was out with people who know much more about birds than I do so I absorbed as much knowledge as I could. I found it hard to get any good pictures because I didn’t want to scare the birds away. It was definitely the most intense bird outing I have ever had. We were out for about 9 hours and it was freezing, but I had a great time and my team was amazing.

We sure were. I just found out that our team actually tied for the Christmas Bird Count trophy this year! I’ll be honest with you — during the CBC, I was kind of jealous that you got to experience a Harlequin Duck sighting for the FIRST TIME! What did it feel like to see a Harlequin duck? 

It was pretty amazing, I had never seen one before. We couldn’t get too close because it was out in the lake but I could see it well with my camera. It was also impressive how many birders had heard it was there and were showing up from all over to see it. There is definitely strong communication in the bird community.

Do birds get more exciting for you as you get to know them or are you nostalgic for that first sighting? 

The first time you see a bird you have been hoping to see for a long time is very exciting and you likely won’t forget that moment (like when I saw my first Snowy Owl). But it is true that I do have a growing appreciation for birds once I learn more. This is especially true with sparrows, for example, where the more you learn the more you start to recognize the differences between them.

What do you think of the nerdy bird lingo like CBC and Warbler Neck?

I love it, both terms are pretty new to me and I’m just learning all the lingo. It takes time to learn it all and trust me there is just as nerdy lingo in music. I think it shows your experience and commitment to something in a way.

You’ve been taking photographs of birds for a few years now. What makes a good bird photo? Any favourite birds you like to photograph?

I think it is very important to get the eyes in focus and it’s not always easy when they move so much and fly away. The framing of the photo is also very important to me. I want my pictures to look good in a frame as a print where I find a lot of bird photography doesn’t take that into account. It’s just my approach to bird photography. I want it to be more artistic I guess. Cedar Waxwings seem to make beautiful subjects.

Any nemesis birds you hope to get but keep missing?

I haven’t got an Osprey photo I am proud of yet and they are one of my favourite birds. I dream of getting a diving Osprey photo.

Eastern-screech Owl, seen and photographed in Toronto.

Do you have any birding mentors?

Justin Peter, Jack Breakfast. I also just got this coffee table book called the Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw and it is so amazing. She does all the art as well as the writing. The pictures are some of my favourite drawings around. It is a bird anatomy book but it’s so artistic. She draws bird skeletons or birds without feathers, creepy and cool. I also follow a lot of incredible bird photographers on social media like Harry Collins. 

Do you use apps to help you find birds in the field? 

I use the Peterson Bird app while I’m in the field. Actually my dentist recommended it.  I also use field guides. I have a few for the different parts of the world like UK/Europe and North America.

You’re also a drummer. I’m often struck by the musicality of birds (especially the song of a Wood Thrush), but recently I heard a duet of Hairy Woodpeckers and I actually thought of you because their syncopated rhythm would likely have made any drummer proud. Are there any connections for you between birding and music?

There is. Listening is incredibly important for both music and birding. For music you need to listen to your other band members to make sure you are a tight unit and with birding listening for bird calls is obviously extremely important to locate birds. Also some birds are very rhythmic. Woodpeckers being the main one around the Toronto area.

When Danny Miles isn’t birding or photographing birds he’s rocking out with July Talk.

Were your bandmates surprised by your new birding identity? Have you converted any of them to birding?

Yeah, at first I presented it like a bit of a joke, like “I’m thinking of getting into birding so by the time I’m 60 I will be the best birder in the world.” I do think they were weirded out but they understood it helped keep me sane on the road. I wouldn’t say they are converted but they are definitely more aware of the nature around them.

What inspired you to start your blog, drummerswholovebirds.com?

I wanted to share some of my experiences out in the field while getting the pictures. Sometimes it is so incredible. I also like having the memory written down and maybe it gives people a look at the kind of personality the animal in the picture has.

Would you say that birding changed your life?

In a big way. I feel like I am better known for my bird photography now then my drumming, haha. It’s crazy, sometimes while walking across a street in Toronto or something someone yells “Hey, Drummers Who Love Birds.” They don’t even mention that I am the July Talk drummer. It’s pretty funny.

I’ve found that birding opens the most unexpected doors and has introduced me to some of the most surprising and delightful people. Have you had any surprises? What interesting connections have you made through birding?

Getty Lee of Rush is into birding and we have a mutual friend who introduced him to my photography, which was super cool. He commented on my photo. I also was introduced to another musician/birder/writer/artist Jack Breakfast. I have bought his art and his bird book. He is a really interesting guy. I have yet to meet Getty or Jack in person but I hope to someday soon. The Vice Documentary I did introduced me to the shykids guys who are amazing people and of course my birding mentor Justin Peter, who is the vice president of the Toronto Ornithology Club and also appears in the doc. I also met Wendy McGrath who is a writer because of my photography and we are now collaborating on a poetry book. I did some charity stuff with Toronto Wildlife Centre who are amazing people and WWF Canada posted my picture of the Snowy Owl on national bird day, which was so flattering. So yeah I have definitely been introduced to amazing people because of birding.

What’s next for you, birdwise and otherwise?

I am working on the poetry book with Wendy McGrath. I’m not sure when that will come out but we are probably about half way done looking for a publisher at the moment. I am always taking photos and selling prints on my website drummerswholovebirds.com. I may also do some art fairs this year and try selling prints that way. A gallery show would be pretty cool to do. July Talk is writing a new record and I have a couple other music projects I am currently working on.

Danny Miles, in his other element.

And, speaking of July Talk, if someone wants to get to know your music where should they start?

I think as a band we are most proud of the album Touch. CBC (not Christmas Bird Count, but Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) did a great live recording of us when Touch came out.