Monthly Archives: July 2010

In Good Company

It turns out we’re in good company, here at Birds and Words. If I had to reduce my life to three basic things I love, here’s what the list would look like: writing, my morning cup of coffee, being out in nature (and, as is often the case, looking for, but not always seeing, birds). There are all sorts of variables to this Holy Trinity of things I love, of course. There are books, but I’d put them in as a subset of all three categories: I often read before I write, read books with my morning coffee, and, of course, read when I’m out in nature. So really, books are a by-product of my Three Loves. Then there’s music which I listen to as I write (though not always), think about as I drink my coffee (uh….not really) and listen to on the road while I’m driving out into nature.

And….surprise surprise! It turns out that Margaret Atwood loves everything I love!

Check that out! She has recently partnered with Balzac’s Coffee Roasters and bingo! A new coffee blend that gives 1$ of every pound you buy to the Pelee Island Bird Observatory (and 25 cents to the Smithsonian for royalties)! The coffee is coming to Balzac’s in August! Balzac’s is good coffee (and the cafe in the Distillery is also awesome), so I’m sure none of us will be disappointed with the new Atwood Blend.

I knew that Margaret Atwood and her dear hubby Graeme Gibson are great birders and birdophiles (ornithophiles? is that the correct word? if not, it should be.) I even bought Gibson’s Bedside Book of Birds a few years ago, mainly for the fabulous illustrations. It’s a great anthology and a literary tribute to birds, from antiquity to the present. But let me just reiterate that the illustrations are especially stunning. However, what I learned in this Toronto Star article (which I read, incidentally, while sipping my morning coffee) is that while Graeme Gibson is the Chair of the Pelee Island Bird Observatory Board, Margaret Atwood is on its advisory committee. Now that’s what I call bird-commitment!

In any event, tomorrow is August 1st and I know what kind of coffee I’ll be drinking this month! Shade-grown, bird-friendly coffee, brought to you by a true Canadian roasting machine and endorsed by a truly Canadian writer. What could be better? And, most importantly, who knew Margaret Atwood and I had so much in common?

Danger! Danger!

My bird musings are usually of a peppy, perky, optimistic nature. Birds are cool creatures. I’m learning how to become a better observer, they’re teaching me lots of stuff, and make me happy. So, lately, I’ve been basking in my aura of bird-bliss and have totally forgotten about the fact that not everybody on earth is as blissed out on birds as I am, and that a non-negligible population on this planet is really into eating birds. And by “eating birds” I don’t mean chicken or turkey or cornish hens or even, say pigeon (which I have, on more then one occasion, done myself and quite enjoyed). Have no fear, this is NOT going to be a vegetarian rant of any sort; I’m as carnivore as they come. What I mean by folks who like to “eat birds” are the people who enjoy feasting on SONG BIRDS and do so in large, unsightly numbers.

Here I was living in my little bird-paradise bubble, loving life, enjoying the sunshine, dreaming of the new binoculars I’m about to receive on my birthday (well, a few months from now, but it’s never too soon to start planning for my birthday), and fantasizing about setting my alarm clock to 5am again about a month from now, once birding-vacation is over.

All of that until today, when I picked up the New Yorker, as I do every Wednesday afternoon when it arrives in my mailbox and was stunned to find Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant and deeply disturbing article about the slaughter of song birds in the Mediterranean. For a precis of his article, you can listen to the podcast. It turns out that countries of Cyprus, Italy and Malta hunt millions of song birds every year and consider eating them a fine cultural practice. Franzen tells us that 1 BILLION birds that migrate through Europe every year are killed.

Here’s what you could have for dinner in Cyprus:

That would be a Blackcap Warbler (Sylvia atricapilla), a delicacy in many a restaurant. Apparently one of the reasons Malta resisted entering the EU because of the restrictions the European union places on hunters. Hm…Can’t kill quite as many warblers now?

I had no idea such common species of warblers are now becoming endangered. Apparently Italy is such a bird-unfriendly place that you hardly see them anywhere! They’re all on someone’s plate.

Sorry for the downer of a post. Bird-slaughter makes me angry (especially when it’s done with such brutality — read Franzen’s article — and for such a senseless purpose).

But on a more positive note, the article is just another reason why I think reading the New Yorker makes you a better person. Not only do you get to read great writing, wacky profiles of people you never knew existed (such as a physicist turned origami artist), and you get to see Bird Issues publicized to a wider public (and such bird events as the Freaks and Beaks film festival that I sadly had to miss due to the fact that …well, due to many factors).

Gloriously Normal

The more you look, the more you see. Every passing minute is richer, more rewarding. The more birds you see, the more birds you see. When you recognize the patterns of daily life among the birds you know, you will recognize something that breaks that pattern. … Once you have begun to understand the ordinary, you prepare the way for the exceptional. Once you have begun to savour the quiet joys of everyday birds, you have made yourself ready for the peak experiences. You are ready for that combination of the gloriously normal and the staggeringly unexpected that is the heart of the life of the bad birdwatcher, and the good. (Simon Barnes, How to be a Bad Birdwatcher)

If birdwatching is teaching me anything — and it is, even when I’m not bird watching — it’s about finding pleasure in the gloriously normal. Even crows look different now! Not to mention the Canada geese… (OK, I’m getting a little too lyrical here; I don’t understand the appeal of Canada geese, especially when they’re in a pack and running after you. Honestly, I find them a little terrifying.)

I love the term gloriously normal. Isn’t that what life is made up of? Mundane little moments that, if done carefully, bring substantial joy once they’re piled up? Isn’t that what being happy is all about — learning to appreciate the gloriously normal? I keep coming back to the connections between birding and writing and realized it’s right here, in this quote. Writing, for me, is about learning to make the normal glorious.

Back from Algonquin!

Dearest Bird Aficionados! I’m back from my northern holiday. We stayed at the best cottage/lodge ever called Hay Lake Lodge. As you guessed, it’s right on Hay Lake, a 16 km long lake near the East gate of Algonquin Park. Here is the view from my (screened) front porch:

If you look very closely, you can see the screen’s mini-squares. I suppose if I were a real photographer, I would have taken a better photo, but this pretty much captures the mood of the place. Perfect. The lake was gorgeous, clear, warm, and I never tired of watching it. I got to know this lake fairly well; I swam in it daily, both in my swimsuit and fully clothed! We managed to tip our canoe twice (within a 10 minute span) in knee high water! In fact, I didn’t know such a thing was possible. I came back to Toronto with an array of multicolored bruises. (I just wish they didn’t turn a sickly greenish yellow; really, quite unbecoming.)

We stayed in a delightful cottage with a full kitchen and a bbq! We cooked, we grilled, we swam, we read (and read and read and read), we contemplated, we ate (and ate and ate and ate — why is it nature makes one so compulsively omnivorous?), we did a day-hike (rather, a morning hike) in Algonquin Park, we visited a small town with the saddest, most depressing and forlorn “farmers” market I’ve ever seen in my life (I was so moved by the sight I bought some horseradish; it turned out to be too sour and I threw it away in the end, but felt compelled to spend the 3$ anyhow), we napped — it was a perfect vacation. You’ll be happy to know that I got great use out of my Tilley Hat.

And now — the moment you’ve been waiting for — the birds! I’m sure you’re dying to know what I’ve seen. You’ll be happy to know that I went to Algonquin with my binoculars (such as they are)! And I looked! And I saw a few great things, though didn’t get everything on my wish list, which was, incidentally, compiled for my by my Bird Guru. Hence the sophistication.

I hadn’t taken into account just how loud Woodpeckers can be until they woke me up the first morning! The incessant and relentless rhythmic hammering is far from poetic when the bird’s favorite tree happens to be right outside your bedroom window! At 6 a.m.! I think the culprit was a Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus), though I wouldn’t bet my life on it:


I think Hairy and Downy are related because they pretty much look identical. But, I’m willing to bet it was a hairy and not a downy woodpecker given the sheer volume and power of its hammering. According to Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, the Downy woodpecker is the slightly more docile of the two. It must be that “much larger bill.” Who knew? The birch tree outside my window was home to three Hairy fellows (haha) who beat holes into the bark in perfectly symmetrical lines. All that without a ruler!

The lovely Hay Lake is home to many a common loon (gavia immer). There’s something truly magical about the loon until you hear its sound. Then you want to crank up your ipod and pretend the whole thing never happened. But I love the black and white patterning on its neck and feathers. (I didn’t take this photo. Someone on google images is to thank for this image of mother and baby loon!)

I was deeply convinced that I caught sight of many a Boreal Chickadee, but upon further investigation, I have a deep, abiding fear that what I really saw a Gray Jay. I’ll have to leave you in suspense on that one. My husband kept telling me he was seeing dozens of warblers, but I think that’s just because I had recently taught him a new word…

And, in culinary news, we grilled delicious grilled lamb (marinated in orange juice, wine, garlic, rosemary, thyme), steaks, corn on the cob, asparagus and red peppers. Did I mention it was a perfect vacation?