Monthly Archives: April 2010

Birds & Poems

Another luminous poem by Don McKay, in honor of Poetry Month and also in honor of the upcoming Migration Month, which happens to be May in these parts. This poem is from McKay’s collection Apparatus (1997). And here’s to hoping that I’ll actually get to see a wood thrush soon.

Song for the Song of the Wood Thrush

For the following few seconds, while the ear
inhales the evening
only the offhand is acceptable. Poetry
clatters. The old contraption pumping
iambs in my chest is going to take a break
and sing a little something. What? Not much. There’s
a sorrow that’s so old and silver it’s no longer
sorry. There’s a place
between desire and memory, some back porch
we can neither wish for nor recall.

My First Birding Permit

You’ll never believe it. I am now the proud owner of a Bird Permit for the 2010 Bird Watching Season at Brighton Constructed Wetlands ONLY. (I really liked the addition of ONLY — added a nice touch to the permit). It’s laminated and signed by a certain D Willcott, who’s filling in for J.Phillips, from the municipality of Brighton. It’s all very exciting. Especially the laminated part. I went to Brighton last August, in the pouring rain, but we didn’t need a permit back then. We were greeted by an enormous man who goes by the name of Tiny. I wonder if I’ll get to see him again when I next end up in Brighton’s constructed wetlands. Tiny was sweet — he pointed us in the direction of a great breakfast place (also the ONLY breakfast place) in Brighton and told us to tell the waitress that Tiny sent us. We proceeded to do just that, and the service was nothing short of stunning. Believe it or not, we also saw the Mayor of Brighton that morning (I didn’t say hi because he had an entourage).

Brighton is here in Ontario, not in England (sadly). The main virtue of Brighton Ontario is its proximity to Presqu’Ile Provincial Park which is beautiful and has a great lighthouse (I seem to collect lighthouse sightings as well as bird sightings now). Some Canadian history trivia for you: In 1804, a ship called Schooner HMS Speedy sank right off the shore of the park. The remains of the ship were never found and neither were the bodies. Apparently the ship was bringing officials to trial in the new courthouse built somewhere in or near Brighton; nobody made it.

I must admit, I’m rather fond of my permit. I’ve put it in my wallet next to my health card and driver’s license. It feels so official — definitely the beginning of a New Life of a Somewhat Birder.


The highlight of Saturday’s birding was definitely my first Winter Wren sighting! Those birds are tiny, but boy are they ever LOUD! A little trivia for you (thanks to ornithologist extraordinaire and BNA): did you know that the Winter Wren has ten times the sound power of a crowing rooster? (I had better look up what BNA is, if I’m posing as an almost-birder.) Anyhow, the Winter Wren is so loud (and teeny) that when the bird sings, its whole body quivers and shakes maniacally! Quite the sight to behold. In case you’ve forgotten, here is the bird in question.

I also realized that ornithology is no place for feminist criticism. Have you ever seen female birds? I have to admit — I was tremendously disappointed. Let’s do a taste test. Here is (as you all know) my all-time favorite bird, otherwise known as my “spark bird” — the Red Winged Blackbird.

And here, alas, is its female counterpart. ALSO a red winged blackbird:

That was my exact reaction. (well, assuming we had the same reaction, but I’m pretty sure we must have, because really, how many different reactions to this taste test could you possibly have? Unless, of course, your predilection is for drab brownish brown birds, which, incidentally, I totally accept.) So, I wonder — what do feminists say about the Bird World?

Identifying birds is infinitely harder than I thought. Not only do males and females look so strikingly different, but birds also change their plumage a couple of times a year, and look different depending on the season. But I’m still an almost-birder, not even a beginner birder, so all errors remain permissible.

Had a great encounter with an owl (I only seem to have owl sightings in Whitby. Who knew Whitby Ontario was famous for its owls?), thanks to a member of our group who spotted him on a tree where I only saw branch upon branch upon branch. Seeing isn’t as easy as I thought either!

I’ve often wondered what animals do all day long, and whether they have intellectual aspirations akin to ours. When I was a little kid, I used to think that every life form modelled itself on human life. For instance, if I was told that an insect lived 24 hours, I’d imagine that from midnight to 2am, the bug went to elementary school, then high school, then graduated from university at about 9 a.m, then graduate school until noon, then the bug worked until 5pm, and then came retirement and fun, and, obviously death at midnight. It strikes me as slightly ridiculous that I believed such a thing until, well….later than one might think. But, as I said a few posts ago, I did lead a rather sheltered life, where the natural world is concerned. Of course, the thing that now puzzles me most is why on earth, at age 6, was I perfectly convinced that all animals should go to graduate school and get their PhD?

Green Jay

Every year, I buy a calendar on January 2nd. Why the 2nd? Mainly because I don’t want to face the fact that another year’s gone by until I can avoid it no longer, and January 2nd is usually the day the realization hits. (And, calendars are on sale.) For as long as I can remember, I’ve bought art calendars — Paul Klee, Kandinsky, you name it. This year, the only calendars on the sale rack had teddy bears and ultra-smiley babies emerging from cabbages and cute looking animals of every persuasion and just when I thought I’d have to go home empty handed, I saw an Audubon calendar of North American Birds.

Needless to say, I took it as a sign, bought it immediately, hung it on my wall and decided that 2010 would be My Bird Year.

It’s now April, and I’m staring at a fabulous looking Green Jay (cyanocorax yncas, to be precise):


Isn’t that the greatest little bird ever? I recently bought a pair of boots that exact shade of green. (Perhaps not a very bird-y thought, but there you have it.) I’ve been daydreaming about this little green jay every day since I first saw it on April 1 and have been imagining that I’d see it at some point during migration season. Actually, I’d never seen a bird that had all my favourite pen colours on it before (yes, I write letters in green and yellow pen).

And then I looked at the handy-dandy Audubon map of North America that shows you exactly where and during which season you could expect to find the bird in question. All I saw was a tiny purple dot in the southern tip of Texas. Alas, no plans to visit Texas just yet. But, good to know that I now have a reason for wanting to see TX.

Has anybody ever seen a Green Jay up close?

Two Things

There are few things I love more than being on (or near) the water. I suppose the only thing that would compete for the “what I love most” slot would be my bookshelves (I guess that amounts to a whole lot more than ONE thing). Or my red 1969 Olivetti Typewriter (but that’s a story for another time).

As a child, I wasn’t really introduced to the natural world. My upbringing swayed more toward the cerebral end of the spectrum — I learned languages, memorized composers’ birth and death dates, developed a crush on ¬†Franz¬†Schubert at age 16 (who wouldn’t?), played musical instruments, knew all about Van Gogh and his poor ear and could differentiate between Monet and Manet by age 11. I was dragged to the zoo; I thought it smelled, and avoided going back as best I could.

It took until I was in my mid-20s for me to develop an interest in nature. And now that I think about it, there were birds in the picture! I was in graduate school and shared a house with a charming South African who had a dreamy accent and a bird fixation. We lived next to the river, and I spent many a Saturday morning pretending to read, while actually watching him watch birds from the balcony. What transfixed me was realizing that someone could stand still for more than two minutes at a time (a feat I hadn’t yet mastered). Watching my roommate watch birds gave me my first taste of peering into, and paying attention to, nature. The South African and I went our separate ways at the end of that year, and I never got a chance to tell him that watching him watch birds taught me more about the power of observation and attention than all my literary theory texts combined.

For some reason, until I went on my first bird watching outing, I hadn’t made the connection between birds and water. (OK — just chalk it up to my cerebral upbringing a few paragraphs above.) I had heard the word “shore birds” before, but had never put two and two together until I saw my first Red Necked Grebe:

I hadn’t realized that birding would enable me to do the thing I now love best: be outside, by the water, looking closely. And afterwards, once I got home, birding would force me to do the thing I love second-best: run to my bookshelf and look up pictures, descriptions and narratives of what I’d just seen. (Or, in my more prosaic moments, at the end of it all I just head for the dark chocolate in the cupboard.)

The English and the Birds

Sadly, I’m sick at home with a nasty virus and hence my lack of bird sightings. You’ll be happy to know, though, that I’ve been imagining and dreaming of birds; in fact, I may have even dreamt that I was among the birds, but I’ll spare you the details. While I attempt to revive what’s left of my poor throat, I’m going to leave you with a birdy photo, sent to me by my good friend (author of a great blog that offers nuggets of wisdom about herbs, life and Northern BC):

It’s a trendy bar in Exeter! Perfect!

Bird Film Festival!

I like to imagine that I live in New York at least once a week. (The bulk of the imagining usually takes place on the day I receive my latest issue of the New Yorker, especially when I read the Goings On About Town section.) It turns out that if I were a New Yorker, I too could attend the Freaks and Beaks film festival at the Anthology Film Archives at the end of the month!

They’re showing all sorts of goodies, including an old favorite of mine, “Winged Migration.” Of course, they also have the Ur-Bird movie, Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” And a few I’d never heard of, including “Woodpecker,” which the New Yorker claims is “a comedy by Alex Karpovsky about a poet who is obsessed with a bird thought to be extinct.” And for documentary lovers, there’s also “Up on the Roof” about New York’s pigeon lovers. Surely, you wouldn’t want to miss the world premiere of Brigitte Cornand’s “Red Birds” about — just guess — her love of red birds. I’ll definitely be renting those last three movies shortly! (Do people still rent movies? Does that phrase reveal just how much of a luddite I actually am?)

So, if you happen to be in or near New York City anytime between April 28 and May 5, you can watch bird movies to your heart’s content! But be sure to take copious notes, and then tell me all about it. I collect information of this ilk.

Do any of you know of other (good) bird movies out there? There was that penguin craze a few years back that yielded all those penguin movies, which was great at the time, but I doubt I’d watch them again.

Words and a Bird

Not only am I seeing birds everywhere, but I’m also realizing that they’re turning up in the books I read. One of my favorite books about writing is Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. Her book was a revelation when I first read it, about 10 years ago, and continues to inspire me. And I find myself rereading the chapter called “Shitty First Drafts” over and over and over again. Admittedly, her book is more about writing (or, the writing life) than about birds in and of themselves, but the concept of patience that lurks behind birdwatching is in fact the same concept of patience that needs to accompany the writer. Constantly.

So, one could say I’ve found the perfect hobby to hone my patience skills. “Just take it bird by bird,” Anne Lamott’s father had advised her brother, when he was procrastinating and getting all edgy over an assignment. What a sensible model for life!

I forgot to mention that I also heard a Winter Wren last week! Here’s the bird in question and it’s VERY loud and tiny!

I didn’t take that picture and that is not my hand. It must belong to one of the people who run this site.

OK, I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t hear the Winter Wren. I was told that it had sung, but I totally missed it. (Remember? it was my Saturday of missed birds, of heard-but-not-seen specimens, and of not-heard and not-seen birds.) I was too busy searching for the owl I didn’t end up seeing. It was the same day my binoculars refused to cooperate with me and the day I saw more twigs than birds. (Later that evening, I also tried to look around my house using my binoculars, but that kind of minutia got old pretty fast.) Yes, bird by bird.

Bird Nerd

My husband has started calling me a bird nerd. I tell him that I’m not quite at that stage just yet (bird ID count: 5), but he persists. I guess that’s one of the hazards of walking out the door at 6:40 am on a Saturday, with binoculars, mitts, 2 different hats (a winter hat for the freezing morning and a Tilley hat for the midday sun!), a scarf, hiking boots and Sibley’s Field Guide (which I only really look at in the car or once I’m home). And migration season hasn’t even really struck yet.

I’m beginning to wonder about my bird nerddom. Maybe I’ve been secretly preparing for a while. I’ve had a Tilley hat since I was 18 (admittedly a little early to become a Tilley aficionado, but here at Birds and Words, we come from a Tilley family). My father was the first to embrace the Tilley conversion, and I followed his lead as soon as I read the little “user’s guide” in the hat’s pocket. I was taken by the narrative of a hat durable enough to withstand anything, including being digested and excreted by an elephant! It was certainly worth the 60$ investment. With two such hats in the family, my mother was an easy convert. My sister is the only one who remains mildly resistant to the Tilley hat, but who knows what the future holds.

Though I haven’t yet (really) started keeping lists of birds, I’ve been keeping lists of just about everything else since as early as I can remember. I guess someone who keeps meticulous logs of every single plane (and train!) trip ever taken, every thank you card written, every movie seen, every concert attended is bound to, at some point, discover the wonder of birds.